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Advocates Use Utah Sanctuary Mom In Case Against 'Zero Tolerance' Immigration Policy

Kelsie Moore

Vicky Chavez is taking her story beyond the walls of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church.

“It’s hard being in sanctuary,” Chavez said through an interpreter on a conference call Tuesday. “I’m here with my two girls. One is six years old and one is 10 months old.”

Chavez told reporters around the country that she fled her native Honduras to escape domestic violence in death threats. She arrived in the United States in 2014.

At the end of January she was ordered to leave the country and go back to Honduras. Instead, she took refuge inside the church with her daughters and asked the courts to reopen her case. In the meantime, she’s taking English and sewing classes.

Another woman, 49-year-old Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, has been living in sanctuary in a church in Greensboro, North Carolina for nearly a year.

Ortega’s husband and two of her four children are U.S. citizens. Her other two children are protected under DACA. Her not being home that long has affected her family, particularly her youngest son, who is 16.

“My husband thinks that he’s falling into depression,” she said.

Members of Ortega’s family are trying to work with Citizenship and Immigration Services. “But unfortunately I had a deportation order against me prior and Immigration is not willing to reopen my case,” she said.

Of the 44 known people claiming sanctuary in the U.S., 19 are mothers, said Rev. Noel Andersen with Church World Service. Andersen has been a leading coordinator in what he calls the “sanctuary movement.”

“As we approach Mother’s Day, we are fighting for all of those moms to get relief from deportation, to be able to go home and be with their families,” he said.

The Trump administration is taking an ever-harder stance on illegal immigration, which the president campaigned on. On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute anyone crossing the border illegally.

"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Sessions said. "If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.”

New Mexico immigrant advocate Johana Bencomo called the policy “draconian” and “inhumane.”

“These are not the values our faith communities live by and represent, but also this country,” she said. “We will continue to fight back against policies that are harming immigrant communities, communities of color everywhere, but especially at the border.”

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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