On Christmas Eve, the Washington Post ran what appears to be a local "news" article about a 41-year-old Salvadoran national named Rosa Gutierrez Lopez captioned: "When a sanctuary becomes a home: Undocumented woman marks 1 year inside church". It tells the story of Gutierrez Lopez and her three "U.S.-born children, ages 12, 10 and 7," who have been residing at a suburban Maryland church — in Gutierrez Lopez's case, since sometime in the late fall of 2018. It is not a short article, but it leaves unanswered a lot of questions — including what the endgame is for her, and the church.
Here is what the Post does tell us. She came to the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md., from her residence in Fredericksburg, Va., shortly before she was to be deported, which had been scheduled for December 10, 2018. "Church officials" have requested on a number of occasions that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) grant a deferral of her removal order, and she has an "appeal" (likely a motion) "to reopen her asylum case", probably filed with the immigration court that issued her order. Her asylum claim ostensibly has to do with her fear of return to El Salvador, where "she says her relatives have been killed by gang members." She has an ICE ankle monitor. Her three kids moved into the church over the summer, and are now attending Montgomery County (Md.) schools. She is one of "49 residents in the United States taking refuge in faith communities." And her youngest child, John, has Down syndrome.
Left unanswered is when (or even how) exactly Gutierrez Lopez entered the United States last, whether she was apprehended at entry, whether she actually applied for asylum in removal proceedings (or even whether she actually ever appeared for her removal proceedings), how long she has been under a removal order, whether she has a criminal record (an ICE priority as explained below), and who was caring for her children between the time she showed up at Cedar Lane and the time her children arrived there. These are salient points, for a number of reasons.
The fact that she has a 12-year-old child born in the United States (there is no suggestion that her oldest naturalized) would indicate that she was in this country at least 12 years ago — assuming that she did not return home. A U.S.-citizen child with Down syndrome is the sort of "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" that normally renders an alien with 10 years of physical presence in the United States eligible for 42B cancellation under section 240A(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), but nothing suggests that she applied for that relief — probably for good reason.
If she was served with a notice to appear prior to being physically present in the United States for 10 years, it would have ended her accrual of presence under section 240A(d)(1) of the INA. If she were apprehended at entry, then she likely would not have accrued any physical presence in the United States, and it could be one explanation for her ankle monitor. (Another would be that she was placed on alternatives to detention (ATD) pending removal, showing again the weaknesses in ATD.)
And if she did return home between the time of her oldest child's birth and her latest entry, that fact would also likely affect her asylum claim.
Of course, we are not told anything about her asylum claim aside from her assertion that her relatives were killed by gang members. As I explained back in November 2018, however, the standard for asylum is fairly strict: to be granted that protection, the applicant must show that he or she is "unable or unwilling" to return his or her country of nationality or last habitual residence "because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." Simply having relatives who were the victims of criminal violence is not usually enough, unless the applicant can show a nexus between those relatives and the applicant, and a nexus between the harm that the relatives suffered and one of the five protected grounds.
Finally, we have no information on who, exactly, was caring for her children between the time she arrived at Cedar Lane and the time she was reunited with those children. Was it the father or fathers of those children? Was it another family member? Did that individual or those individuals apply for asylum or some other form of immigration benefit that would make her eligible for status? No idea.
This is not to say that the Post did not provide its readers with plenty of background information about Gutierrez Lopez since she has been at Cedar Lane. She sang in the choir on Christmas Eve, her children were scheduled to open their presents at midnight on Christmas Day, she has "weekly video conferences with other immigrants in sanctuary", she "busies herself with yoga, classes, and meetings with activists and lawyers," she has cooked traditional Salvadoran food for members of the congregation, they have a videogame console, and two of her kids were looking for soda when the reporter was there. There are "volunteers who help pick up groceries, attend parent-teacher meetings and take the kids out on weekends," and "others who take on 24-hour 'companion' shifts, staying near the family at all times to keep watch and respond to emergencies." Not much about her immigration history, however.
Why did she travel the approximately 60 miles from Fredericksburg to Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.? Again, oddly, the article does not explain that either, but it does provide a few hints.
"Cedar Lane congregants voted overwhelmingly in 2017 to designate the church as a sanctuary," and had apparently secured an apartment and a bed for those it was inviting to take shelter, but had no real plan: "Many of the church's members had long-standing interests in social justice, but these were mostly 'theoretical,'" according to the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, the senior minister at Cedar Lane, "until this year."
Gutierrez Lopez "had not heard of Cedar Lane — had not even known about sanctuary — until several days before her scheduled deportation date." So, did she travel to Bethesda seeking sanctuary? Were there no closer faith communities she could have approached?
The reason that I ask the last question is because, interestingly, the Post reports that Cedar Lane is one of hundreds of faith communities that "have designated themselves sanctuaries — a form of protest against the Trump administration's increasing crackdown on undocumented immigrants." (Emphasis added.)
That specific quote itself is also interesting, because on December 11, 2019, the paper reported that:
ICE deported more than 267,000 people last fiscal year, a 4 percent uptick from the year before and significantly lower than the peak of 400,000 annual deportations midway through President Barack Obama's administration.
Immigration arrests inside the United States — which typically target convicted criminals — hit their lowest point since Trump took office, with 143,000, down 10 percent. Arrests of convicted criminals also dropped 12 percent, to approximately 92,000.
Officials said deporting criminals remains ICE's top priority. Of the nearly 86,000 people deported from the interior of the United States last year, more than 90 percent had criminal convictions or pending charges. [Emphasis added.]
In an effort to balance out assertions, even in local human-interest stories, the media generally provides some background facts, especially if they have already appeared in the same paper. That did not happen in this instance, however. Nor is there any indication that Cedar Lane considered President Obama's approximately 33 percent higher deportation rate to be a "crackdown on undocumented immigrants", or declared itself a sanctuary during his eight years in office.
The December 24 article discusses the "Congregation Action Network, a group of religious institutions that banded together in 2017 to resist the Trump administration's increased immigration enforcement." Again, that reference passes without allusion to the decrease in removals since the Obama administration, even though it raises the question whether the resistance is more against "immigration enforcement" or the "Trump administration".
The president does get at least one additional mention in the article: "At mealtimes," Gutierrez Lopez prays for other immigrants facing deportation "and for President Trump." Specifically, she asks that the president "[m]ay ... find the compassion he needs ... to stop the discrimination."
This is a toss-off anecdote, but one that is left hanging — what is the discrimination in this case? That a foreign national under an order of removal received notice that removal is imminent is not "discrimination". It is legal process at worst, and justice at best. Unless Gutierrez Lopez was targeted for removal because of an immutable characteristic, but there is no evidence in the article to suggest that was true.
Finally, there is no indication that either Gutierrez Lopez or Cedar Lane has an endgame. She appears to have a motion to reopen pending, but if that is denied, will she just stay in Bethesda indefinitely? Or if her case is reopened and she is again ordered removed, will she return to Cedar Lane and be taken back in? ICE would likely arrest her at the end of the proceedings. Are she and the church simply waiting out the end of the Trump administration? If so, there is nothing to suggest that her removal order would not thereafter be enforced.
At the end of the day, such actions may feel good to the congregants, but are usually self-defeating. Perhaps Gutierrez Lopez will be successful in her efforts to reopen her case and receive asylum, but there is nothing in the Post's reporting that suggests that will be the case. Of course, there is a lot that is not in the Post's "news" reporting of this story to begin with.