After President Donald Trump took office in 2017, at least 70 undocumented immigrants, most facing final deportation orders and an administration determined to enforce them, sought sanctuary in churches across the country, according to Church World Service, a faith-led organization that works with people seeking sanctuary. They were the latest wave in a movement that dates to the 1980s, when churches defied the U.S. government’s efforts to deport war refugees to Central America.

With the election of Joe Biden as president, many hoped they would be able to return to their families. And in January, Biden signed an executive order, imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportation. But a federal judge in Texas on Jan. 26 blocked it indefinitely, creating a dilemma for the 21 immigrants who Church World Service estimates remained in sanctuary as of the end of March. Some have chosen to leave the churches, while others are still hesitant to do so. We talked to five people who have faced that choice. Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Maria Chavalan Sut, 46

Entered sanctuary at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville on Sept. 30, 2018

Translated by Alberto Serra Tur and Daniela Santamariña

Ever since I was 13, I’ve been running from place to place. In Guatemala — when they started killing my whole family, that’s when I started running. We hid in the mountains for many years so we wouldn’t be killed. In my mind, I would see all the dead bodies and all the smells and odors. I would always dream, “What if I got sent back?” I would think, “I’m going to get killed at any moment.”

I came to the U.S. in 2016. I spent the first month in detention. The rooms were very small. I could barely move. You couldn’t even sit on the floor. Later, I went to Richmond and that’s where I was for a while. ICE gave me some paperwork that said I had to present myself to ICE in Virginia. So I went. They gave me another appointment to go to an ICE office in Fairfax in 2018. That day, I got there four hours early. They told me I missed a court date in July 2017. (The court immediately issued a deportation order in absentia when she failed to appear.) I never got the letter. They gave me an ankle monitor. The ICE officers had guns. They reminded me of the military in Guatemala. People from ISAP [ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program] came to my house every week to make sure I was there. I was there for every visit. They are just waiting for you to make one mistake. I had to go to the ISAP office once a week, too. At the office, they opened old wounds. They ask questions like “What happened to you? Why are you here?” to write some report.

When I came here, to sanctuary, I was not able to think about anything else for over six months. It was horrible. But the church supported me. I came to sanctuary because I didn’t want to hide anymore. I want to live like a normal person. I believe that God has a plan not just for me, but for humanity, for all the injustices. And that’s why I’m here, because I want my justice and I want to fight.


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Jose Chicas, 56

Entered sanctuary at School for Conversion in Raleigh, N.C., on June 27, 2017. Left on Jan. 22.

Translated by Samantha Schmidt

I’ve lived most of my life here in the United States. I entered sanctuary to not be separated from my family. I also have a congregation to shepherd and I couldn’t leave them like that, abandoned.

The day I entered sanctuary, I spoke to the congregation and they supported me and said it was okay. Once my wife and son left, it was a very sad afternoon. There are many things that I felt at that moment. Angry with the administration because Trump treated me as if I was a criminal, just because of not having legal residence in this nation. I couldn’t be at my son’s graduation, neither the elementary school or the middle school.

Why, when I was young, when I had no wife, had no children — why didn’t they deport me at that time? And now that I have been here, I have four children in the United States and my wife, and now they want to separate me from them?

After Biden canceled deportation orders for 100 days, my lawyer said that I could leave sanctuary. It was very happy for me, to walk through that door, to see my house. And to reunite with our kids and my wife. We were talking until 1 or 2 in the morning, talking and talking. My son (now age 14) was in the back seat when we were on a drive and he kept touching me on the back saying, “Be happy, be happy, you’re free, don’t be afraid.”

Legally, the first two days, I felt very safe, very happy. But now that we know the Texas judge has blocked this order, as a human you feel a little fear. I don’t think I’ll go back to sanctuary. I’ve already made the decision.


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Jeanette Vizguerra Ramírez, 49

Entered sanctuary March 15, 2017, at First Unitarian Church in Denver for 86 days. Reentered sanctuary March 15, 2019.

In 1997, I came to Denver for my safety. The father of my children worked in public transportation and was kidnapped three times in Mexico. He left first, and the family followed. We arrived without knowing the culture, the language. We slept on the floor of a house with a few blankets. My first job was as a janitor, and within a few months I began to see there were so many labor injustices. I began to organize buildings, helping people with their problems. I leapt from being a janitor to an organizer.

I was detained on Feb. 4, 2009. I had two jobs. When I left my second job, a police officer turned on the lights behind me. I said, “Okay. He’s probably going to give me a ticket.”

But the first question he asked me was: “Are you legal or illegal in this country?” I told him I was going to maintain my right to remain silent. I gave him my consular card and the vehicle registration and insurance. When he went to the patrol car to check my information, I called my children’s father and told them a police officer had stopped me, take good care of my children. The police officer returned. He put me in handcuffs.

An immigration judge said in 2011 that I had to go home. I appealed. That was pending when I got a call from Mexico that my mother was very sick with cancer. I talked to the father of my children and told him I need to say goodbye to my mother. (Her mother died before she arrived.)

I was there for seven months. I couldn’t find work. I felt like I was losing my children. I decided to return, the same way as the first time. I walked seven days and nights through mountains and finally the Border Patrol caught us. I was detained for three months in El Paso. I got out. But later at a check-in, an official detained me. And he detained me in front of my children, crying, screaming. This was in 2013.

We were able to mobilize the community and I got out again. But because of what happened, I began to look for options. In 2017, I spent 86 days in sanctuary. It ended when I got a stay for two years. Then they wanted to deny it again. So I sought sanctuary again.

I let my children stay with their father to have a normal life, since the person with the problem was me. Those are tough times because, when you are alone in your room, you have these moments of reflection of all the fights you have waged, all the pain and suffering that the system has caused you. People say look at Jeanette, she’s so strong and brave. But I have cried a lot.


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Irida Kakhtiranova, 39

Entered sanctuary at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence in Northampton, Mass., on April 6, 2018. Left April 2.

I came to the United States in 2003. I was always working, always paying taxes. I applied for a stay of removal every year. I have an American husband and American-born children. I am not a troublemaker. And I had proof of all that. And my stay was getting approved every year.

I will never forget election night. My heart sank. I knew at that moment that it was never going to be the same. In 2017, after Trump has put new orders in, my stay of removal was denied. After discussing it with 17 different attorneys, nobody was even trying to take my case because of the new administration’s rules. It was either go to the immigration office and report to them and get detained and deported or go into the sanctuary and have some hope that you’re going to resolve your case. And I could see my children (a son, then 10, two daughters, then both age 4) and my family. That was the most important thing.

I discussed it with my son. How do you explain that? What is immigration? What is police? I started talking to him about the time where he might not see me for a while. Of course he cried, but at least he cried in my arms. It was very traumatic. I remember every second of it. I remember driving in my father-in-law’s car on the way there. I remember my children coming with me just so that they would see where I am so that they’re not scared.

I held my breath till the inauguration. Biden has signed a lot of orders, and I know that I do qualify under one of them. But we need a written statement saying that it’s okay to leave. Some people were promised many things by ICE and they got deported. And then it’s too late.

(Two months after this interview, the Bureau of Immigration Appeals reopened her case. “I am no longer under deportation,” she wrote in an email Friday, “and am glad that I [can] spend Easter with my family at home!”)


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Eliseo Jimenez, 42

Entered sanctuary at Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, N.C., on Oct. 9, 2017.

I was 17 years old when I came to the states back in 1995. I came from Mexico just to start working with one of my cousins. Back in 2014, I only applied once for that stay of removal and that stay of removal got approved a month later after I submitted it. After that, they put me on an order of supervision. I have to present myself every year to the Charlotte Immigration Center. It was just a regular check-in every year.

After the Trump administration came in 2017, that’s when everything started going in a different direction. (ICE refused to extend the order of supervision and said he had to leave the country.) The group that was working with me found a church. I wasn’t thinking this was going to take this long, but the more we saw the past administration act, I started realizing this is going to be a long way.

I stayed in sanctuary to be with my kids (age 3 and 4 when he entered the church). I never experienced a good relationship with my father. I don’t remember any single gesture of love or kindness from him, and I decided to be different. I decided to be with them and give them love, give them what I didn’t get.

As soon as we heard about the new administration, I was thinking we will have a better chance to get a better result for my case. But I don’t feel really comfortable leaving the church yet. We’re still waiting to hear from the Board of Immigration Appeals.

A lot of people are interested in knowing more about how it is for people like me, immigrants working in this country. We talk about how hard it is, about not being able to have a work permit and just working and being afraid every day of being stopped or reported to immigration. If politicians we’re willing to work more with people like ourselves, instead of putting more walls, and to start thinking about how this country was built, then they would say, “Look, this person is doing the same thing my great-grandfather did so my grandfather can have a better future.”

Religion News Service contributed to this report.