There was no midnight raid at her home. No snatching her off the street, without a word to her family about where she’d been taken.
By her own account, Rosa Gutierrez Lopez was given every chance to make arrangements and leave the U.S. on her terms. The 40-year-old woman, with the nudging of deportation officers, had even bought her own plane ticket to fly back to El Salvador on Dec. 10.
But she didn’t get on the plane.
Instead, she’s now at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, where she has taken sanctuary, counting on a centuries-old tradition to protect her from any attempts to roust her and send her back.
“The reason why I took sanctuary is I love my children. I did not want to leave; I wanted to fight here,” Ms. Lopez said through a translator during a welcoming ceremony at the church this month.
She is one of a growing number of migrants who have sought the protecting hand of a religious community.
The Church World Service said Ms. Lopez was the 49th person in sanctuary at a church as of the middle of this month. The numbers soared after President Trump took office last year.
The church sanctuary movement is similar to the sanctuary city movement, which has likewise surged under Mr. Trump. Hundreds of communities have enacted laws and ordinances to cut off cooperation with federal authorities.
But while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the government’s deportation agency, has fought the state and local governments that have enacted sanctuary policies, it has taken a hands-off approach to churches.
Indeed, houses of worship are named “sensitive locations” under a long-standing ICE policy that pointedly discourages deportation officers from collaring people at those places. In addition to churches, synagogues and mosques, the list includes schools, hospitals, and public marches or rallies.
The policy was updated most recently under President Barack Obama in 2011. Despite a get-tough approach in many other areas of immigration enforcement, ICE has maintained the Obama policy in the Trump administration.
While schools and hospitals can’t easily house an illegal immigrant in residence for any lengthy time, churches can — which makes them refuges.
Sanctuary is an ancient concept, dating back at least to Jewish and Greek traditions.
After the collapse of the rebellion of Cylon in the seventh century B.C., some of the rebels took refuge in a temple to Athena, protected by a tradition that said the holy place must not be soiled by bloodshed. But the rebels were without food and were enticed to come out of the temple while holding on to a string tied to the statue of Athena, thus extending her protections outside the sanctuary.
Somehow, the string broke, and Athenian Archon Megacles said it was a symbol that Athena had withdrawn her protections. He had the men massacred.
The modern sanctuary movement in the U.S. dates back to the 1980s and Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. The consequences facing refugees are less extreme than Cylon’s followers, with deportation the penalty the illegal immigrants are trying to avoid.
Hundreds of churches have said they are willing to take in an illegal immigrant, but only several dozen are actively hosting someone and there has been a drop in migrants entering sanctuary in 2018.
Jennie Belle, a community organizer in the immigrant program at the Church World Service, which helps organize sanctuaries, said her group has seen a slowdown in people being able to leave the sanctuary, which might be discouraging migrants.
For the churches that do have someone, she said, it’s “transformational” and offers a chance to harness their religion for concrete action.
“The general message I think we’re hearing over and over again is the moral outcry this is a broken system that’s not working properly,” she said. “The fact that people are forced to go hide in a church, live in a church, be imprisoned in a church, this is another way of showing the system isn’t working. I think the public gets that.”
At Cedar Lane in Bethesda, Ms. Lopez is the first person the church has taken in. The congregation voted in 2017 to become a sanctuary.
During her welcoming ceremony, Ms. Lopez said she had thought about leaving but decided she couldn’t do that to her U.S. citizen children — particularly her youngest, who has Down syndrome. She said El Salvador lacks the kinds of specialists her son is able to see in the U.S.
“I can’t leave, and I need to fight my case from here,” she said.
She stays at an apartment that the church created for her at its facility, the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi said.
“Her children visit when they are not in school and are able during the week, including her youngest child who has Down syndrome. She is looking forward to getting actively involved in the church. The congregation is honored to have her and supports her wholeheartedly,” the minister said.
What happens now remains to be seen.
While there are no reports under the Trump administration of ICE disregarding church sanctuaries, the sensitive locations policy is not a categorical ban but rather a strong discouragement. Exceptions are possible.
Like the Greek temple and the string mishap, some creative lures have been used to coax migrants out of the sanctuary.
An illegal immigrant who took sanctuary at CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, in December 2017 was told he might be able to apply for relief from deportation, but he needed to emerge and get his fingerprints taken at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.
Church members, fearing a double-cross, accompanied Samuel Oliver-Bruno to the USCIS meeting and conducted a service on site in an attempt to extend symbolic sanctuary to the location. But ICE officers — who the church says were in plain clothes pretending to be other migrants filling out paperwork at USCIS — then came forward and arrested him.
Nearly 30 church members were arrested for trying to block ICE from making the arrest, and the church has complained of “violence employed” against Mr. Oliver-Bruno.
He was deported Nov. 29.
Mr. Janamanchi at Cedar Lane dismissed worries of a repeat for Ms. Lopez.
“Rosa has the protection of our congregation while she is on church premises. Her children are U.S. citizens and can come and go from the church,” he said.