Immigration and Customs Enforcement's recent deportation of undocumented immigrant Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who lived in sanctuary in a Durham church for 11 months as one of six people in North Carolina in sanctuary, has led to heightened protection for a second undocumented immigrant in a local church. 

In light of Oliver Bruno's deportation to Mexico, Chapel Hill's Church of Reconciliation has stepped up its protection of undocumented Honduran Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz. Volunteers work in shifts to ensure that Cruz is accompanied at all hours of the day and night, according to the church’s pastor Mark Davidson. 

“This is an administration that has taken an extremely belligerent and hostile approach towards our undocumented neighbors. Samuel is a gentle man of prayer," Davidson said. "Rosa is a wonderful spirit."

When President Donald Trump's January 2017 executive order broadened ICE's authority to designate any immigrants in the country illegally as removable, the sanctuary movement experienced sharp growth. President Barack Obama's administration prioritized removing those with serious convictions or gang affiliations, or who pose a national security threat. 

ICE avoids enforcement actions in "sensitive locations" such as churches and hospitals, barring "exigent circumstances" that include approval or if "other law enforcement actions 'have led officers' there." Currently, there are over 1,100 houses of worship serving as sanctuaries, according to a 2018 Church World Service report

Rachel Baker is the immigration advocacy program coordinator of the North Carolina Council of Churches.

Baker said that some individuals seek private sanctuary because the typical process for entering sanctuary is very public. The church announces in a press conference and directly informs ICE of its intention to protect the individual until he or she is granted either stay of removal or deferred action, Baker said. Based on the undocumented immigrant’s particular circumstance and attorney counsel, the church may offer protection without public knowledge, but nonetheless informs ICE, she said. 

“[Churches] notify ICE officials to say ‘Hey, we have this person in sanctuary’ and so it’s under the law and [is] technically not harboring because you’re not concealing,” Baker said. 

Deciding to become a sanctuary church can be a taxing commitment for a congregation. When deliberating whether to offer protective sanctuary, the Church of Reconciliation spent several months researching the history and implications of protective sanctuary, consulting active sanctuary congregations and immigration experts and hosting countless discussions within the congregation, Davidson said. 

Before hosting Cruz, the church also had to convert a staff member’s office into a bedroom and a janitor’s closet into a shower. 

“It was a leap of faith for us, but we knew it was the right thing to do,” Davidson said. “We are called by our faith to welcome the stranger and to love our neighbors.” 

When Trump first took office, many undocumented immigrants entered sanctuary expecting to only be in sanctuary for a few months. Baker said that due to the administration’s persisting hostility against undocumented immigrants, however, individuals are now more hesitant to enter protective sanctuary.

“I know one man who went into sanctuary and thought ‘Oh, it would only be for a few months,’ but he’s already been in for a year,” Baker said. “Because now there’s not much movement, it’s a bit of a deterrent to people.”

The Church of Reconciliation has hosted Cruz since April 2018. Cruz says she fled Honduras with her children in 2002 because she alleges her former partner attempted to murder her—he had repeatedly beat and stabbed Cruz. The abuser had promised to “finish the job” if she ever returns to Honduras, Davidson said.

“If she was deported, it would be a death sentence for her. Honduras is a very small country, with skyrocketing rates of violence against women, corrupt and ineffective police and a culture of impunity,” Davidson said. “Taking Rosa into sanctuary is saving her life.”