By Suzanne Pollak @SuzannePollak
BETHESDA — A 40-year-old mother of three from El Salvador now resides in a Bethesda church, refusing to return to her native El Salvador although ordered to do so by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rosa Gutierrez Lopez is the first undocumented immigrant to seek public sanctuary in the Washington, D.C. area, according to Omar Angel Perez, lead organizer of DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network. She was welcomed at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, whose congregation voted 18 months ago to become a sanctuary congregation.
“This is your home,” Rev. Abhi Janamancki, the spiritual leader of Cedar Lane, told Gutierrez Lopez during a vigil on Wednesday in which interfaith religious leaders laid hands on her and spoke of the importance of working together to help.
Montgomery County Executive Mark Elrich, Council President Nancy Navarro, Montgomery County Police and the County Department of Health and Human Services support Gutierrez Lopez and Cedar Lane church, said Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, County interfaith community liaison.
They are all “on record supporting the Montgomery County way,” he said, adding, “We are a welcoming community.”
While County police officers may not enter the church and evict Gutierrez Lopez, ICE may.
Should that happen, said Janamancki, the spiritual leader of Cedar Lane, he would speak with them. Any other actions would depend on what the federal officials did, Janamancki said.
Gutierrez Lopez lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. While her own church was supportive, the Cedar Lane church was best suited to offer her sanctuary, Perez said.
So Gutierrez Lopez was brought to the church in the early morning hours of Monday, Dec. 10. She now lives in an apartment on church property, spending her days helping with church needs, she said.
She is optimistic that her attorney, Hector Perez-Casillas, will get her a new court date to plead her case.
She seeks asylum so she won’t be separated from her American-born 11, 9 and 5 year-old children.
Through a Spanish interpreter, Lopez said she fears she would be killed if forced to return to El Salvador, where she had been threatened by machete-carrying farm workers, who continue to threaten members of her family still in El Salvador.
The restaurant worker explained she illegally entered America in December of 2005 and promptly turned herself in and requested asylum. She received a court date to appear, but didn’t understand and therefore, did not show up.
Almost 10 years later, she learned that “immigration was out looking for me, wanting to deport me.”
She went to court in Richmond, Virginia, where she was told to appear annually. She did for three years. Then, in May of 2017, she was ordered to wear an ankle monitor and check in with every two weeks.
During recent visits, federal immigration officials “pressured me to purchase a flight ticket, and so I did,” Gutierrez Lopez said.
Rather than use her Dec. 10 plane ticket, she opted to seek sanctuary.
“I love my children,” she said. Referring to her younger son who has Down syndrome, Gutierrez Lopez said, “If I go back to El Salvador, there are no specialists who can help my son.”
Although she said she was “really, really thankful for all the support this congregation has given me,” sanctuary is “very difficult for me,” because she misses her children greatly.
“We’ve never been apart before,” she said of the children who currently are staying with her pastors in Virginia. When asked if her children understand what is happening, Gutierrez Lopez replied, “not really.”
None of the three children have ever been to El Salvador.
“The will to live is powerful, but what is more powerful is the will for a mother to see her children thrive,” noted Pastor Julio Hernandez Jr.
Cedar Lane President Gail Riley described Lopez as “a hardworking mother with a work permit.”
Added organizer Perez, she “wants to comply with the law. Rosa is only asking for more time for her case to be decided. She is only requesting what we all want, to be heard.”
Rev. Alvin Herring, executive director of Faith in Action of Washington, D.C. told those gathered at the church that their job was “to bear public witness and to give our faithful testimony that the immigration policies of this country are immoral. They are wrong, and they do great violence.
“We are the everyday people, and we are speaking loudly and clearly,” Herring said. “You do not rip children from their families, not in our name.”