The woman, who has been in the United States for about 25 years and is married to an American, is one of about a dozen people and families nationwide taking refuge in a church.
It has been the practice of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to not raid a sanctuary church, the label taken on by churches, synagogues and other congregations that provide a living space and other support to someone facing deportation.
“While we have a duty to follow just laws, we have a moral obligation to oppose unjust laws and policies” said Rachel Brackbill, a member of the Quaker meeting house.
She, along with other church and community leaders, gathered at a news conference Tuesday at the Albuquerque Friends Meeting House, a Quaker church, in Downtown Albuquerque to announce the woman’s sanctuary plan and rally against President Donald Trump’s directives that raised the priority of noncriminal deportations such as hers.
The woman, Emma Membreno-Sorto, who is about 59 years old, has only one traffic ticket in New Mexico and no criminal history. Her attorney, Roderick DeAguero, said he doesn’t believe she uses any public assistance programs.
“She’s not a drain on the American public,” he said, referencing the common argument from anti-immigration activists who worry about immigrants using tax-funded programs. “We need to support our government in many ways, but I think we could do this better. There has to be a better way.”
Membreno-Sorto, speaking in Spanish, said Tuesday that she arrived from Honduras in the 1990s, applied for political asylum but never received notice of a court date and went about her life, moving from Atlanta to Colorado to New Mexico. She found out about her deportation status in 2011 after ICE agents took her into custody at her home in Albuquerque.
“In the last months, immigration has been contacting me very frequently,” she said through a translator. “Seeing that they detain a lot of people when they go to their appointments, there is fear and a feeling of helplessness in the country.”
Membreno-Sorto was referring to recently publicized cases of other people without immigration documents or with incomplete documents being taken into custody for immediate deportation when they arrive at their regular check-in meetings with ICE.
An Arizona woman, with American children, was taken into deportation custody in February when she met with her local ICE office, as she had done for years after being alerted of her deportation notice.
So instead of checking in with the ICE office for her appointment Monday, Membreno-Sorto took the path others have in the nation and sought refuge at the Quaker meeting house, or church, in Downtown Albuquerque.
“I don’t think it’s an irrational fear at all. We’ve read in various news sources that ICE is looking for the low-hanging fruit, people who have deportation orders,” said Sara Keeney, a Quaker Meeting member and one of the leaders of the effort to house Membreno-Sorto at the church.
That effort requires a volunteer escort to be with Membreno-Sorto at the meeting house at all times. At least 45 volunteers recently underwent escort training. Other churches and individuals are contributing money, food and medical services as Membreno-Sorto is recovering from cancer.
ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa was unable Tuesday to provide details of Membreno-Sorto’s case or explain the process of check-ins.
The sanctuary church movement started in the 1980s and included 270 churches in 33 states, including one in Albuquerque.