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Bethesda church offers sanctuary to immigrant mother with 3 US-born children

Bethesda church offers sanctuary to immigrant mother with three US-born children. (ABC7)

A Bethesda church is offering sanctuary to a woman who fled violence in El Salvador 13 years ago and was told to return to that country after her asylum request was denied.

On Wednesday, Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church held a welcome ceremony for Rosa Gutierrez Lopez. The 40-year-old mother of three U.S.-born children lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia with her family and will now call the Bethesda church home.

Sanctuary is a religious tradition dating back to biblical times but it’s a first for the Washington metro area for an organization and sanctuary seeker to publicly announce the agreement.

“We are here to witness the offering of sanctuary to Rosa Gutierrez,” said Omar Angel Perez of DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network.

Immigration attorney Hector Perez-Castillas filed motions for a stay of deportation and to reopen the case. He said one of Gutierrez Lopez’ children is severely disabled and needs frequent medical care and therapy.

“ICE is aware of this. This is part of the reason why up until 2017 they were renewing her stay order,” said Perez-Castillas.

“The decision to take sanctuary here is because I love my children and I didn’t want to go to my country because I want to fight my case here,” said Gutierrez Lopez through an interpreter.

During the welcome ceremony, she said she was fleeing violence in El Salvador and that her family continues to be targeted by gangs there.

“For us to invite this guest into our building and into our community, is an act of faith,” said Gail Riley of Cedar Lane Church.

In the United States, sanctuary is not protected by law. ICE does have a policy that says enforcement is not to occur at sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals and places of worship.

“The fact that an undocumented immigrant is seeking sanctuary at a place of worship does not provide legal protection to that individual. Congregations should make that clear to any immigrants seeking shelter with them,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The church said it has a lawyer they will consult if they encounter legal trouble.

Gutierrez Lopez will live at Cedar Lane indefinitely as she waits to hear if she can stay in the United States with her children.

ICE send ABC7 News a statement regarding Gutierrez Lopez’ case.

Unlawfully present El Salvadoran national Rosa Lopez Gutierrez has been afforded due process in our nation’s immigration courts and was expected to execute a voluntary departure on Dec. 10. Lopez was previously ordered removed in absentia by an immigration judge following her failure to appear in immigration court on Jan. 10, 2006. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers encountered Lopez in September 2014. Lopez has been granted both deferred action and a stay of removal in 2015 and 2017, respectively, in exercises of prosecutorial discretion. Following the expirations of those designations, Lopez received departure instructions from ICE officers and provided a departure itinerary as required of her on Oct. 9. Ahead of her expected departure, Lopez filed a motion to reopen her immigration case with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) on Nov. 15. On Dec. 10, Lopez failed to depart the U.S. as required.

“For you to say, ‘We don’t care. Get out of this country.’ I don’t think that represents the United States,” said Perez-Casillas.

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