Juana Ortega, 45, is the first person to take sanctuary in a North Carolina church after being asked to leave the country by the U.S. government under the Trump administration.

Juana Ortega, 45, is a seamstress who lives in Asheboro and had worked for the same textile company in High Point for eight years before having to quit to enter sanctuary at a church in Arden. She is the mother of four children, two of whom are U.S. citizens and two are allowed to be in the U.S. under DACA. Her husband, whom she met in her first job as a seamstress in North Carolina in 1993, is also a citizen. She has two grandchildren. 

For years, Ortega had been allowed to stay in the United States as long as she checked in with the government each year. After her routine meeting this year—her first since the Trump administration’s crackdown on people living here without documents—she was ordered to leave the country. Her family, church and dedicated supporters have garnered national media attention on her ordered deportation. She is one of nine immigrants in sanctuary in the country and the first in North Carolina.

 

By Juana Ortega (As told to Andrea Lorenz, translated by Mark Smith-Soto of Faith Action International House)

In Guatemala, my parents were farmers. They worked in the fields. I only went to school for three years because my family needed money and needed me to take care of house duties, and take care of younger siblings.

When I was 19, the guerrilla forces told me if I didn’t join up with them, they’d kill me. They sent a letter to my home saying, “Sign up or die.”

I left my daughters with my mother, ages 2 and 4, because they were so young, and I traveled to America alone with the help of coyotes. It was very hard. I crossed the border in Tijuana and asked for asylum there, and they gave me permission to stay. I stayed with my two older brothers.

Ortega and her husband have lived in the Triad area for 24 years. They have four children and two grandchildren.

My uncle in Los Angeles moved to North Carolina, and he kept saying you should move to North Carolina because there’s a lot of work here. I’m the only one in the family who took my uncle’s advice to move here.

I never knew this, but my lawyer said that apparently the asylum that was granted to me was not properly entered. I assumed the asylum was granted. I did get a work permit and I had to check in once a year to renew my work permit.

I’ve worked as a seamstress for 25 years. I’ve always worked, and I’ve always paid my taxes.

When I went to check in (with ICE) this year, I did not have any fears and thought everything was going to go along fine. I had been doing what I was supposed to, and I expected things to go the way they had always gone.

We have applied (for a spousal visa), but ICE has rejected the application several times. They consider that reopening the case, and they don’t want to do that.

Ortega and her family addressed the media before she took refuge in a North Carolina church.

I’m very afraid to go back to Guatemala because I kept fleeing the violence, and there is violence there waiting. I still have my parents there, but I’d have to find a new way to make a living and a new way of life.

St. Barnabus Episcopal Church offered me sanctuary, opened its doors to me. Since I’ve been here at the church, my family comes to visit me. It’s an hour’s drive. If there’s a church service, I attend; I talk to the people who work here. I really miss being with my children and my husband.

I had to quit my job (after taking sanctuary in the church). I have lived many, many years here, and now I feel like an American. I wish that I could tell people who are in my situation not to be afraid.