Juana Tobar Ortega and family

Juana Tobar Ortega, a native of Guatemala, lived for four years in a Greensboro church to avoid deportation.

But that’s over now: Ortega returned home to her family in Asheboro this week after a deportation order was rescinded by a stay of removal issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to Siembra NC, a Latinx advocacy group, which operates in the Triangle area. 

“I want to thank God and all of the people who have helped us,” Ortega said in a press release. “I wish blessings to everyone who has supported me and my family. I’m so glad to be able to return home”

Ortega managed to avoid immigration officials by seeking sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro.

Kelly Morales, Siembra NC’s executive director, said Ortega was the first immigrant to seek sanctuary in the Southeast. She began her stay with the church in May 2017. 

“Juana has been a beacon of courage for immigrant women across the country for the last four years,” Morales said in the press release. “She has worked tirelessly all this time to support local and national immigrant rights organizing at the same time as she was continuing to practice her craft as a seamstress to help support her family. I’m glad she can finally return home and rest, and I hope the administration will continue to use its authority to grant stays of removal to North Carolinians like her, hundreds of whom still have active orders of removal which could result in needless family separation.”

The documentary film Santuario chronicled part of the time Ortega spent living in the Greensboro church, where she fled after immigration authorities issued her deportation order during a routine annual check-in at the Charlotte ICE office in February 2017. She had been granted a limited permit to work in the United States.

Morales said Ortega’s decision inspired six other North Carolinians to seek sanctuary at other houses of worship across the state, all of whom sought her counsel first.

As previously reported by the INDY, seven of the 36 immigrants living in sanctuary in the United States as of January 2018 were in North Carolina. Ortega is the last person seeking sanctuary in the state to receive a stay of removal since the Biden administration took office in January, according to Siembra NC.  

While she was in sanctuary, Ortega’s eldest daughter, Lesvi, gave birth to a son. Nearly a year and a half later, she finally will be able to visit her grandson at home.

“God has been good to us and the day we’ve been waiting for has finally arrived,” Lesvi Molina, Ortega’s daughter and a DACA recipient, said in the release. “We’re so grateful to be able to return to a normal life as a family.” 

For now, the Guatemalan woman wants to enjoy being reunited with her family. She and her family are “currently declining interview requests and request privacy as they readjust to life at home,” Morales said. 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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