Martha Lorena Rivera describes a life of uncertainty and difficulty as she and her youngest child, an 8-year-old daughter, have lived at a Catholic retreat near Las Cruces for the past seven months as Rivera seeks to avoid a deportation order.
Rivera and her allies said her situation is the result of the unjust and discriminatory policies of the Trump Administration. Repeated requests for comments from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were not returned by press time.
Rivera made her way to the Holy Cross site after ICE informed her in October that she would be deported in four business days, according to the ThinkProgress news website.
Rivera said during a Monday telephone news conference that the stay of removal she had been granted for six years was not renewed this year.
As Mother’s Day approaches this weekend, Faith in Action, a national network of religious groups behind the sanctuary movement that has grown from 400 congregations in 2016 to more than 1,100 today, has brought the plight of women such as Rivera to media attention.
“If our country claims family values, we can’t be in the business of ripping people apart,” said Rev. Julie Peeples of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, North Carolina. “It is immoral. It is against Scripture. It is against all we stand for as people of faith. So we believe we are answering to a higher law, and we are faithful to that calling.”
The pastors and Faith in Action leaders participating in the conference call with Rivera, a woman seeking refuge in Salt Lake City and an undocumented woman in Greensboro, said they feel they have to “live their faith” by doing what they can to keep families together and treat people with kindness and dignity, which they say are not provided for by current immigration policies that they characterized as cruel. Peeples also said that God does not recognize borders.
Immigration officials have been notified in writing of Rivera’s location, according to the ThinkProgress story about the Holy Cross Retreat Center, which is also housing a father who left Columbia in 1998. The man said U.S. officials sought to deport him in fall 2017.
According to the ThinkProgress website, law enforcement agencies typically do not enter religious properties to arrest undocumented immigrants not wanted for other criminal activities.
Rev. Noel Andersen, of Church World Service and United Church of Christ, said 144 people are being sheltered by the Faith in Action network nationwide; 19 of them are mothers. The number of public deportation cases has grown from five in 2016 to 37 in 2017.
“A congregation that declares itself a sanctuary congregation is one who is willing to engage on a spectrum of solidarity actions,” he said, whether providing advocacy services, legal advice or shelter.
He described the people in sanctuary as having deep ties with their families, their religious organizations and their communities and said that many have experienced years of legal protection from deportation under previous presidential administrations.
Rivera was first asked to leave voluntarily in 2006, according to news reports. She did so, but having children here, returned after a few weeks. In 2011, a car accident involving her son brought her to the attention of immigration officials again, but she was allowed to stay under a “humanitarian permit” as long as she checked in with officials once a year. This October, she was told the stay order would not be renewed and she would be deported.
During the conference call, Rivera said that two of her children are U.S. citizens. The other is a “Dreamer,” brought to the U.S. as a child and afforded some legal protections against deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
“It is an honor to stay here,” said an interpreter who translated for Rivera. “But, of course, it has challenges. Like my daughter, the one who is the Dreamer, she can come see me, she visits me, but she can’t go to Mexico like the other ones because of her status. She visits me, but she is sad. And we really can’t go out and celebrate as we used to as a family.”
Anderson and Johana Bencomo, director of organizing for New Mexico Communidades en Accion y de Fe (CAFe), said they are pursuing legal avenues to protect threatened immigrants and are working with state and federal elected officials to seek legislative changes regarding immigration reform, DACA and laws that would protect sanctuary congregations from immigration enforcement actions. Andersen, however, said that legislative efforts do not seem to have “traction” at the moment.
Talking specifically about remarks made Monday by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that illegal border crossings should be discouraged by separating children from their parents, Bencomo said, “Taking on an enforcement first and enforcement only approach is not the answer. These are draconian actions and draconian responses. These are not the values certainly our faith communities live by and represent but also this country.”
In his remarks to law enforcement officers, Sessions said that the administration seeks to restore “the rule of law with regard to immigration.” He said 11 million people live in the United States illegally, and that there is now a “massive influx” of undocumented people across the Southwest border.
“In April, we saw triple the number from last April,” he said. “But we are not going to stand for this. We are not going to let this country be invaded. We will not be stampeded. We will not capitulate to lawlessness.”
Rivera said her son, a U.S. citizen, has submitted a petition for review of her case, and she is hopeful that the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service will grant her the right to stay.
“We know that God is able to change the heart of even the president and leaders,” she said, adding that she hopes she and others “remain positive throughout the situation and keep the faith.”