Commentary
By Elizabeth Welliver 6-20-2017

Twenty four years ago, I was born in a suburban hospital in Carroll County, Md., to two scared, excited, and grateful parents. Within days of being born, I would be given a Social Security number and U.S. birth certificate. These two documents were my inheritance as a white citizen: I was born into a class that, from my first breath to my last, would protect my rights.

In the same months of my mother’s pregnancy, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega feared for her life as a mother. She lived with her husband and children in Guatemala, a nation that had witnessed a decades-long brutal civil war. When Juana was threatened by armed combatants, she had no choice but to flee in faith. She arrived in the United States in 1992 and applied for asylum status, only to be denied two years later.

By the time I learned to talk, Juana faced a new peril: She lived in a country that would not claim her. She continued working under a temporary visa, and appealed her case for asylum, refusing to give up.

By the time I learned to read, Juana’s eldest daughter Lesvi was suffering from a life-threatening illness in Guatemala. She returned to care for her daughter, risking her own safety to make the dangerous trek. When she returned to the U.S., she learned that not only would her asylum status be denied, but she would be ordered to leave the country. But she couldn’t. Her child needed medical care.

By the time I graduated from high school, I diverged from 98 percent of my undocumented peers by going to college. Since then, I have met friends whose stories are like Juana’s; their families came to the U.S. fleeing violence and poverty only to live under the reign of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many earn less than minimum wage, a fraction of what I gained as a 16-year-old working at Dairy Queen. Juana has worked as a seamstress at a factory in High Point for eight years, keeping clothes on my back.

These stories are invisible to many, and yet in God’s eyes, they come first.

In the book of Deuteronomy, God commands the Israelites regarding their treatment of people of other lands. The people are to worship the great God, “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). 

In this same book, God exhorts them: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19). For the Israelites to choose life, to abide in the Promised Land, they must also love the stranger among them.

Today, in the context of the U.S., these verses reveal the necessary moral courage to defend immigrants, that we may live and prosper as one people.

Now, Juana has been ordered deported to Guatemala. She is a mother of four and grandmother of two. She enjoys taking her grandchildren to the park, cooking, and caring for her family. In faith and courage, she is fighting to stay in the place she has claimed home for over two decades. She trusts in God and community to open the doors for her freedom.

On May 31, Juana entered sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal in Greensboro, N.C., with the support of American Friends Service Committee. She is the first to claim sanctuary in North Carolina, a state known for its draconian policies like the “Protect North Carolina Workers Act” outlawing sanctuary cities. In our faith communities, sanctuary shows there is another way, as God’s law is higher than deportation orders. It is a tradition rooted in the Hebrew Bible to protect the vulnerable today. Faith communities across the nation are centering the prophetic voices of our undocumented neighbors as they choose life over orders of death.

When I worked at Southside Presbyterian Church in 2015, the birthplace of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, we stood with Rosa Robles Loreto as she fought to stay with her family for 461 days. Prayer sustained her and inspired the community to continue working for justice. Now, the Greensboro community and allies across the nation have surrounded Juana in prayer, calling upon our senators and representatives to secure Juana’s stay of removal.

It would be easy for me and others with my privilege to turn away from cases like Juana’s. My government tells me that undocumented immigrants like Juana present a threat to public safety.

Yet my faith instructs me to a different way: to choose life as Juana has chosen, to follow God’s commandment to love the foreigner as kin. Juana does not present a threat; she is the lifeblood of a household, a community, a nation that has denied her rights time and time again. After 24 years, it is sinful to deny her a path to citizenship. She is calling for change, praying it would not be long before she can return to her family's embrace.

This Sunday, I will go to church and come home to celebrate my 24th birthday. Juana will stay on church grounds for as long as her safety is threatened. This is her homeland, and her hope is our hope. This is the church's calling: to stand with Juana, to follow God's commandments to love the stranger, to call for justice that we all may have life, and have it abundantly. For Juana to return to her family, may we choose life.

Elizabeth is a Presbyterian-Quaker serving as Interfaith Engagement Fellow at Davidson College in North Carolina. 

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