GREENSBORO, N.C. - After spending more than two decades at her Asheboro home for Christmas, a North Carolina grandmother, originally from Guatemala, is spending her holidays inside St. Barnabas' Church in Greensboro.
Juana Tobar Ortega came to the United States 25 years ago this past Sunday. She was seeking asylum from violence in Guatemala. Due to family matters, she went back, then re-entered the U.S. illegally. It hadn't been a problem with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers until this year.
After reporting to ICE earlier this year, Ortega was told she had 30 days to leave the country. Instead - she sought sanctuary at the church to avoid deportation, the first of four people in North Carolina to do so. That was back in May.
For seven long months, Ortega has been confined to this Greensboro church.
“We never thought that this was going to go this far,” said her daughter, Lesvi Molina, “We've talked about it with mom before. And it's kind of like a prison, a prison with privileges.”
Fitted with an ankle monitor, for Ortega, there's no coming and going - only staying put.
If she leaves, ICE will deport her back to Guatemala - a place she hasn't lived in 25 years. Right now, the policy on “sensitive locations” remains: officers won't arrest and deport people if they are at places like houses of worship, hospitals or schools.
Ortega's family agrees that it has been a hard year for everyone, and an even harder Christmas. Ortega says last year, she was able to enjoy the holiday in her own home.
“You know, for Christmas, when you're between houses? Well Mom can't do that,” said Molina.
In what seems like a never-ending battle though, the family is holding onto hope.
“We do believe that this is a time of process. God knows why he's doing it and God has spoken to us many times, and this is a place where he has her for a purpose,” Molina said.
Ortega will continue to wait, filling her time with projects, like creating handmade blankets. The family doesn't know how much longer she'll be here, but one thing is for sure: she isn't giving up.
“She is willing to hold on until the end. And the end is whenever she gets to leave and go back home,” said Molina, “And home is Asheboro.”
The family says they've reached out many times to Senator Thom Tillis' office for help. Now, they're reaching out to other lawmakers, and pleading for anyone with the authority to assist.