CHAPEL HILL — Rosa closes the blinds in her bedroom most mornings. She can’t bear to watch the mothers playing with their children on the playground outside her window.
“I think to myself, my God, why can’t my children be happy like all the other children?” Rosa asks, tissue in hand. “Why can’t my kids be together with their family?”
Rosa, a mother of four, has spent the past six weeks seeking refuge inside a small, makeshift bedroom that was once a corner office in a Mennonite church. She fled Honduras 16 years ago, after surviving a near-fatal stabbing by her ex-partner, and entered the United States illegally in 2002. She’s been living in North Carolina ever since.
Rosa appealed for protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture Act, but her case was rejected by an immigration judge in Charlotte. Rosa was given a deportation order and told to leave the country by May 14.
She packed her bags and kissed her kids goodbye. But instead of heading to the airport, Rosa drove an hour east on I-40 to Chapel Hill and took sanctuary inside the Mennonite church. Now she doesn’t know when—or if— she’ll ever be free to return to a normal life with her kids.
“My thirteen year old asks me everyday, Mom when are you getting out? When’s your court date? What have they told you?” Rosa says, as she flips through a photo album on her bed. “But my youngest kids don’t really understand the situation, and maybe that’s for the best because I don’t want to burden their hearts or minds with this. “
Rosa is part of a growing church sanctuary movement that’s experiencing a sudden expansion in response to President Trump’s aggressive immigration policies. Immigrants who enter a sanctuary church face imminent deportation, and have nowhere else to turn. Church sanctuary is considered a last stop before disappearing into the underground— a last ditch effort to negotiate an arrangement that allows them to stay in the country legally.
“It’s not easy [being in sanctuary], but I tell myself that I need to be patient because it’s better to be here than in Honduras,” Rosa says. And she can’t imagine subjecting her kids to a life on the run.
The church sanctuary movement originally dates back to biblical times, but got its start in the United States in the 1980s, when people fleeing U.S.-funded wars in Central America sought protection in friendly churches after Reagan’s government denied them refugee status.
The movement went dormant for nearly two decades after that, but immigrants started knocking on church doors again to seek refuge from the Obama administration, which deported more people than any other government in U.S. history. Trump’s deportation numbers still lag behind Obama’s, but not from lack of trying; ICE raids and immigrant arrests are spiking, and many people who were granted a stay of deportation under Obama are now facing new removal orders under Trump.
As a result, there are now more people in sanctuary churches than any other time since the mid-1980s, and North Carolina is leading the way.
“We have six people out of the 38 people nationwide who are in sanctuary,” says Viridiana Martinez, director of North Carolina immigrant activist group Alerta Migratoria. “And this is a growing movement; I mean we’re in the Bible Belt, right? So we have tons of churches.”
North Carolina’s goal, according to movement organizers, is to enlist 100 churches in the sanctuary network by the end of the year — and that’s just to meet current demand.
“The sanctuary movement is growing because there’s a need for it; because immigrants facing deportation have no other option,” Martinez says.
When people talk about the sanctuary movement, they’re usually referring to a loose network of some 167 cities and counties across the country that try to shield undocumented immigrants from the federal government by not cooperating with ICE. The feds, however, have jurisdiction everywhere in the United States; ICE doesn’t need the cooperation or permission of local law enforcement to swoop in and make arrests.
Some immigrant-friendly cities have gone so far as to purposely avoid declaring themselves sanctuaries so as not to antagonize ICE. It’s one of the reasons North Carolina doesn’t have any official sanctuaries, despite having several of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the country.
But when it comes to true sanctuaries, churches are considered the closest thing to a safe haven. ICE has a sensitive location police that discourages federal agents from making arrests in schools, churches, and hospitals. In practice, however, ICE has made arrests in hospitals and on school grounds. That makes churches the last best bet for immigrants seeking refuge.
“The sanctuary movement isn’t growing because it’s cool…it’s not because it’s hip, or because it’s the fun thing to do,” Martinez said. “It’s not fun to be stuck in a church!”
Samuel Oliver-Bruno knows that better than most; he’s spent the past five months stuck in the basement of a Methodist church in Durham.
“Sometimes I look out the window and watch the people passing by, and I see the birds flying free, and it brings tears to my eyes because I don’t have that opportunity,” Samuel says, standing in a basement bedroom that he built with his own two hands.
Samuel came to North Carolina from Mexico 24 years ago, and settled in eastern North Carolina, where he got a job in construction. He married his wife Julia two years later, and in 1999 they had their son, Daniel. They lived a quiet life in the city of Greenville until Samuel returned to Mexico to help his ailing father. He was detained by U.S. Border Patrol when he tried to reenter the United States in 2014, and put into deportation proceedings. Samuel was given a stay of deportation from the Obama administration to tend to his wife Julia, who is suffering from Lupus, but his hall pass was canceled when Trump came into office.
“Before they said they were only going to remove people with criminal records, and since I’m clean I thought I’d be ok. But when I went to renew my permit, they told me that because of the new laws in the country they couldn’t give it to me,” Samuel said. “This country has changed a lot in one year.”
The situation has also changed Samuel. He says he tries to stay busy in the church, putting his carpentry skills to use to remodel parts of the basement. He also plays guitar in church services. But he doesn’t dare venture outside, afraid that even setting foot outdoors will puts him and his family at greater risk.
Daniel, who used to love playing soccer with his dad on the weekends, says his dad seems increasingly glum the longer he stays in sanctuary. He says sometimes brings a soccer ball to the church when he visits, so he and his dad can have a kick around in the basement. But it’s not the same.
“I mostly miss the times where me and him would just have father and son time, go play soccer or or even sometimes just like drive around town go get ice cream,” Daniel says. “I miss those happy moments, when we were as a family together.”
Daniel says he’s especially saddened by the idea that his dad won’t be able to attend his high school graduation, which has long been a dream of his. He’s thankful his dad is safe in church sanctuary, but says it sometimes feels like he’s visiting him in jail.
“Even though it’s not a jail, it seems like jail,” Daniel says.
Samuel also admits to feeling depressed about the situation, but says he tries to put on a brave face around his family.
“There are times when I lose all my strength,” Samuel tells me in Spanish, when we have a moment alone. “I try not to show it in front of my family, because my wife’s health is delicate and I don’t want her to worry. But basically I lose all my strength; I feel impotent, like I’m tied up…I’m not free.”
He also feels cheated.
“They’ve taken away my opportunity to enjoy life with my family, to enjoy the life that we had before,” Samuel says, blinking back the tears. “I always worked hard as head of the family, to help my family get ahead…and it fills me with sadness, because I consider this country my own; I’ve lived a whole life here, and raised my family here.”
Would he do it again, knowing what he knows now?
“If they told me told me to enter sanctuary again, I’d do it again— many times over for my family,” Samuel said.
For more on the church sanctuary movement, tune in to The Feed on Fusion TV tonight at 10 PM.