WASHINGTON – When December 10th came, Rosa Gutierrez Lopez did not go back to El Salvador as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had ordered. Instead, she got herself a room just 9 miles away from the White House.
The Salvadoran became the first unauthorized immigrant to get refuge inside a religious institution of the Washington area — according to advocates — hoping to be able to stay permanently in the country with her three U.S.-born children.
"I feel good because immigration cannot enter here," Gutierrez told The Associated Press during an interview inside the chapel of the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, a 7-acre campus in a Washington suburb. "It is a sanctuary place they respect."
While she is legally a fugitive who could be arrested at any time, ICE considers churches and some other places to be "sensitive locations" and generally does not pursue people inside.
Gutierrez, 40, traveled by ground for 72 days in 2005 from her home in La Paz until she made it to the Texas border, where she was detained, released and ordered to appear in court. She didn't show up for the hearing, so the following year received an order of deportation in absentia.
Gutierrez moved soon after to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and had three children before finding out in 2014 that the authorities were after her; ICE agents had stopped her then-partner and asked where she was. She got a lawyer and went to ICE to find out more.
She kept working in a restaurant while checking in periodically with ICE, but things changed dramatically in May 2017, four months after Donald Trump moved to the White House.
ICE placed an electronic bracelet in her ankle — a device that keeps a little blister on her skin and that she tries to hide beneath her clothing — and ordered her to leave the country by December 10.
But Gutierrez refuses to leave behind her three kids, especially the youngest, a 6-year-old with Down syndrome who receives weekly therapy.
She also ruled out taking the kids with her because she said gangs have killed three members of her family in El Salvador over the last two years and she fears for her life.
"I don't deserve to get deported. I deserve to stay here in this country with my children because they are American citizens," she said.
She said the hardest part of her situation at the church is living apart from her children. Though they visit her weekly, "it's not enough," she said.
Gutierrez got in touch with Omar Perez, lead organizer with DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network, a group of congregations in the Washington area that provide support to immigrants who fear being detained, deported or profiled.
"Wearing the bracelet, ICE knows her location at all times," Perez said. "There was a risk that if she did not show up at the airport at 8 a.m. for an 11 a.m. flight on December 10th, they could arrest her and deport her."
Perez asked for and received indefinite lodging for Gutierrez from Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, one of the 12 congregations in the Washington area that have prepared legally and logistically to provide physical sanctuary to immigrants at risk.
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior minister at Cedar Lane, called Gutierrez case as "compelling" and said "we feel committed to supporting her, helping her find more time in order for due process to be provided to her."
Janamachi said the 747 members of his congregation reached that decision as an act of faith. "It can be seen as a political statement, but that is not the place we are moving from."
Faith in Action has trained over 1,000 congregations in 21 states on how to provide sanctuary for immigrants —even if not taking them in physically, said Richard Morales, national coordinator of sanctuary activity for the organization.
He said that at least 50 immigrants currently enjoy sanctuary protection across the country.
Morales said the harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration by then-candidate Trump gave fresh urgency to the movement, and his team of four people plans to train more congregations next year in states he called "vulnerable," such as Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia.
Ronald D. Vitiello, interim head of ICE, said last month at his Senate confirmation hearing that deportations increased nearly 50 percent during fiscal year 2018.
Gutierrez' lawyer, Hector Perez-Casillas, filed a motion to stay her removal and a motion to reopen her case before the immigration court in Harlingen, Texas, with the goal of requesting asylum afterward.
"If ultimately we win the motion to reopen, we don't have to worry about the stay. It removes the deportation order," Perez-Casillas explained. If the case does not get reopen "we can appeal. We have options available. We will continue with plan A for quite a while."
Luis Alonso Lugo on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/luisalonsolugo
This story has been corrected to show that over 1,000 congregations have been trained by Faith in Action, not by Richard Morales, the group's national coordinator of sanctuary activity.