Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz has a scar on her arm. It’s small, the size of a quarter. A second scar—on her back—is little bigger, though it blends with her skin and is barely noticeable.
Her third and fourth scars, however, cover her entire abdomen. These stab wounds are two striking vertical lines deep in her flesh. They are the only physical remnants of the abuse she suffered years ago at the hands of her ex-partner. She says that if she’s forced to return to Honduras, her native country—a place she hasn’t been since 2002, when she was nineteen—he will certainly kill her.
You may have heard stories like Ortez-Cruz’s—women forced to flee toxic relationships, scared that their husbands, boyfriends, or fiancés will beat, torture, or kill them if they try to get away. But Ortez-Cruz hasn’t just been traumatized by the man who fathered her son.
For the last four years, she’s also faced a cold, capricious U.S. immigration system.
An undocumented immigrant, Ortez-Cruz was detained in Greensboro and remained in detention for a month. She was released on bond because of unspecified health concerns, says her attorney, Anne Marie Dooley. Ortez-Cruz’s mistake, Dooley says, was not seeking asylum immediately after arriving in the United States; instead, she waited a year, a decision that has constrained her legal options.
A year ago, an immigration judge in Charlotte ordered her deportation. On March 23, her appeal for protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture Act—which specifies that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and is likely her only shot at remaining in the country—was rejected by the immigration court in Charlotte, and she was ordered to leave the country by May 14.
“I think it’s because of Trump,” Ortez-Cruz says in Spanish. “They’re just denying all the cases.” (As the INDY has previously reported, the Charlotte immigration court, which hears cases from North and South Carolina, has gained a reputation as one of the toughest immigration courts in the country for its judges’ high denial rates of asylum cases.)
Court documents state that “the Immigration Judge properly found that there has been a fundamental change in [Ortez-Cruz’s] circumstances such that she does not face a clear probability of future harm.”
Ortez-Cruz and Dooley are once again appealing the deportation order. But even if their efforts are unsuccessful, Ortez-Cruz doesn’t intend to leave the country next week, as ordered.
On March 23, the day her appeal was rejected, Ortez-Cruz fled her home in Greensboro after living there twelve years and looked for sanctuary in a church, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement won’t follow—as at least six other undocumented immigrants have done across the state. The Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro had already taken in two undocumented people, so the only option that seemed like a possibility for her was in Chapel Hill.
“I was so scared,” Ortez-Cruz says. “I felt that any minute they could deport me.”
She has every reason to be scared. In the past month, the Associated Press reports, at least forty undocumented people have been arrested in North Carolina, including twenty-five in the Raleigh-Durham area. Days prior to Ortez-Cruz’s arrival at the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill—which she connected with through Lori Fernald Khamala, program director at the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization—three men who worked on Franklin Street, just a few blocks away, had been taken by ICE agents. They’re now sitting in an immigration detention center in Georgia.
Inside the pleasant room that the church set up for her, there is a television, a full-size bed, a small couch, and a vintage exercise bike. Church members also constructed a shower.
“The current situation right now is organizing the logistics for her life,” says pastor Isaac Villegas of the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, who is helping facilitate shelter, food, and support for Ortez-Cruz. Several volunteers organize a meal plan for her, along with getting groceries, doing laundry, and finding things for her to do so she’s not “overwhelmed with boredom.”
While the church property is vast and includes a worship space, a school, and a daycare, Ortez-Cruz is wary of leaving the confines of her room.
“I’m just now discovering the place,” she says. “I was really scared at first, but now I just have to place my trust in God.”
Asked if she feels like she’s in prison, she responds, “No. I don’t think so. I’ve been in the detention center before for an entire month. It’s quite awful there.”
Ortez-Cruz says everyone has been very kind, but she doesn’t want to burden anyone. While she feels safe inside the church, she’s finding the language barrier an obstacle, as it’s difficult for her to communicate with her hosts and supporters, including her lawyer. One way of passing the time is learning how to speak English while she teaches others Spanish.
Most of the time, Ortez-Cruz is composed, if a bit weary. It is when she speaks about being deported to Honduras, the possibility of facing her ex-partner, and leaving her four children behind that she falls apart.
“I miss my kids,” Ortez-Cruz says, wiping away tears. They are nineteen, thirteen, nine, and seven. The latter three are all U.S.-born citizens; her eldest son was fathered by her abusive ex in Honduras. She says this experience has been traumatic for them.
“I can’t go back,” she says. “I just can’t.”
In recent weeks, Ortez-Cruz has gotten a lot of media attention. Despite seeming bogged down by the constant interviews, she feels it’s important to bring attention to her cause and to show people that the government is breaking up families. Her advocates are mostly concerned with two things: keeping her safe and getting signatures for a petition asking ICE to keep her in the country.
Villegas launched the petition through Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group, to “put public pressure” on Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE. (Last week, Homan announced plans to leave the agency in June.) Villegas says that petition is also a good way for people to connect with Ortez-Cruz’s story.
“The point is to get as many as possible, as a sign of support and solidarity,” Villegas said.
“Not only is Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world, but Rosa cannot return because her abuser has threatened her life,” the petition states. “Despite the fact that immigration courts recognized that Rosa fled Honduras to save her life, the courts ultimately denied her case, effectively sentencing her to the hands of her abuser if she were deported to Honduras.”
According to the Advocates for Human Rights, in Honduras, “between 2005 and 2013, the number of violent deaths of women rose by 263.4 percent,” and “statistics from the Public Prosecutor’s Office reflect approximately 16,000 reported allegations of numerous manifestations of violence against women for 2012, with 74.6 percent related to domestic and intra-family violence, and 20 percent related to sexual offences. From 2009 to 2012, victims filed 82,547 domestic violence complaints, representing an average of 20,637 complaints per year, of which 92 percent were filed by women.”
Ortez-Cruz is at least the sixth person to seek refuge at a place of worship in North Carolina. There are two undocumented immigrants living at churches in Durham, one in Chapel Hill, one in Raleigh, and two in Greensboro. Villegas says he has also spoken to city and state lawmakers in the area—he declined to say which ones—and has had positive conversations about the work that his church is doing with Ortez-Cruz’s case.
“She’s a strong woman,” Villegas says. “She’s committed to making this life work for her.”