The Limits of Sanctuary | Sojourners

The Limits of Sanctuary

A Q&A with the Filmmakers Behind 'Sanctuario'
Juana Luz Tobar Ortega in 'Santuario' 

In May 2017, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega took sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, N.C. Originally from Guatemala, she had received a deportation sentence that threatened to rip her from her husband, four children, and two grandchildren, after living and working in the United States for over 20 years. Juana’s story, which is one among many harrowing stories of immigrant families harmed under Trump's administration, is now the subject of a documentary film.

Santuario, co-directed and co-produced by Christine Delp and Pilar Timpane, follows Juana during the first seven months of sanctuary. It shows the intergenerational impact of her deportation order and a local church’s effort to help. What stands out about the film is its complex portrayal of a laudable response to a problem, a response that simultaneously falls short of being a satisfying solution.


Pilar Timpane (left) and Christine Delp (right) 

Delp and Timpane, who both have connections to Durham, N.C., won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short at the New Orleans Film Festival 2018 and have upcoming screenings at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, and the Independent Film Festival of Boston. On May 9, Santuario will be broadcast nationally on PBS as part of Reel South Season 4. I recently spoke to them about the film and what’s happened to Juana’s case since its completion. (Full disclosure: I previously know Pilar Timpane from my time at Duke Divinity School and, in 2017, we both participated in a conference on the topic of sanctuary.) 

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Daniel José Camacho, Sojourners: Why did you decide to make a film about Juana?

Christine Delp: I saw Juana's story on the news. A lot of the stories that were coming out about the rise in deportations have been sitting pretty heavily on my heart. I come from, I would say, a moderate to conservative Christian community. I was trying to think about a way to push people on what Christian values really mean. So, when I saw Juana's story, I thought this is the kind of thing that I want people from the place that I grew up in to see. This is the kind of thing that can reframe family separation into a language that might be closer to what they understand. Pilar and I had been working on another project together. She has a lot of experience telling church stories and immigration stories, and so I literally texted her and I was like, "Did you see the story?" She already knew about it. I told her that we should approach Juana and see if she would be interested in letting us share her story.

Pilar Timpane: Daniel, I started thinking about sanctuary at the organizing/networking event that you did through [Duke] divinity school. I was learning the history of that movement and you brought in all those speakers. I’m saying you but I know it was a group of people from the Hispanic House of Studies, right?

Camacho: Yes. It was a group effort.

Timpane: It was a good event. We talked a lot about the future, about what the church could do for undocumented people if they were in a situation where they needed a place to. So, I was already thinking about that. And then when Christine brought this up, I thought it made a lot of sense. Once we met Juana and her family, I saw that they were obviously in the middle of a traumatic experience and to do the story well we would have to put a lot of time and effort into understanding what they were going through and really bringing forward their story.

Camacho: In the process of making this film, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

Timpane: For me, I'd heard a lot about deportation. I knew the numbers and also that there were more crackdowns in terms of rolling back prosecutorial discretion and emboldening ICE. I think I had the sentiment already that there needed to be a change in that. But staying close to the subject and seeing how much it’s literally ripping their family apart — even to be in sanctuary and how that puts such a strain on resources and on family life — it made me feel even more that we have to work hard to create a solution for them to have stays of deferral and also paths to citizenship. I had that in mind before, but seeing it actually play out right in front of us in people's lives made a really big difference.

Delp: To piggyback on that: For me, it was about how the news doesn't always tell the complete picture of what's going on. What I mean by that is that there are so many ripple effects from every time someone is deported. It affects everyone in their orbit. That's something that I think we were trying to show with the story. Juana is at the center of it. The burden is then put on other people. It's put on her daughters to fill these different roles. It's put on her granddaughters seeing their mom taking on that extra stress. There's intergenerational trauma that happens. That makes sense but I don't think that I really saw that until spending time with the family.

Camacho: There are a lot of powerful scenes in the film. I can recall one with Juana's granddaughters in the back seat of the car while Juana's daughter is speaking in the front, and you can tell that even the grandchildren are, in one form or another, taking all of this in. And then with the sanctuary itself, an impression that I get is that there are two sides. On the one hand, there's this beautiful expression about loving one's neighbor. We get that with the congregation, St. Barnabas, how they come to befriend Juana and her family. At the same time though, you have a lot of scenes that show the isolation and the pain of the family, including the feeling of being trapped in that church building.

Delp: Yeah, I think we definitely saw that tension the more the film played out. We say it all the time but sanctuary is incredibly messy. It's not a solution. It's a waiting period. It's an in-between stage and there's no roadmap of how to really do it. It's something that is needed and necessary, and also something that is extremely painful and traumatic and not at all what these families want. I think the film kind of leaves people with a big question mark about sanctuary at the end.

Timpane: As filmmakers and outsiders of the family, we realized we need to let their experience dictate what our story is going to be and how we're going to tell the story. That's always been at the center of our vision, to frame it within Juana's faith and her own belief system. She continually brings it back to prayer and holding on, and she is always looking for hope in a scenario that feels very hopeless. We came into it thinking that [her faith] was something that would move her case forward. Even now, after two years in sanctuary this May, she's still living in sanctuary. The end of our film is her in sanctuary and that remains true. There hasn't been a big change for her.

Camacho: So, no major developments in terms of Juana’s case since you finished the film?

Timpane: There have been movements around sanctuary in the rest of the country. We're looking at those to try and figure out precedent. If there's a bill somewhere or someone gets out of sanctuary, we try to look at those and see how those can be applied in this situation. Because a lot of times in the immigration system, we've learned over time, there aren't many hard and fast rules but there are a lot of precedents. Sometimes when representatives are moving things forward it's because they're choosing to act on discretion. So, we're still hoping that there can be movement for that. But right now, there really hasn't been any change for Juana. In North Carolina, there's been a lot of issues and we had a deportation of someone out of sanctuary. After that, we had a ton of raids go on where ICE said that they were basically pushing back on the sanctuary city practices of our law enforcement. So, it's actually been harder over time in North Carolina.

Camacho: What do you hope churches will take away from the film?

Delp: I think we have a number of different goals that we want for the film. We did a summit in March where we brought together a lot of different churches that are involved in the sanctuary movement and different organizations, both locally in North Carolina and nationally, to hear about how this film can best fit their needs as organizations and fit into what they're already doing.

Part of that is bringing the film to communities that may not have really seen what a family goes through during this process and may not have thought about the potentiality around sanctuary. They might not even know what sanctuary is. They might have heard about someone in sanctuary from the news but maybe don't really know what that looks like and what it means for a church to make this commitment. We need to think about how to push people who do have power because they are the constituents of a community that can put pressure on lawmakers or maybe they are in a church that can provide resources or sanctuary.