In January, a Mexican woman who had been residing in a Columbus, Ohio sanctuary church for months left the building as a legal resident. The woman, being called Angelica in the press to protect her identity, was the first person in Ohio to secure legal residency while living in sanctuary.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, 10 people around the country were able to leave sanctuary and remain in the United States legally in 2018.
What is a Sanctuary Church?
Hundreds of churches across the United States have opened their doors to undocumented immigrants, typically refugees who have come to the U.S. seeking asylum. While there is no actual law prohibiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from taking the undocumented into custody in places of worship, they have not historically done so.
A 2011 policy memo stated that ICE enforcement actions were not to be carried out at “sensitive locations” unless:
- exigent circumstances exist;
- other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location, or
- prior approval is obtained from a designated supervisory official
In addition to churches, “sensitive locations” generally include schools and medical treatment facilities.
In November, Religion News Service reported that since the revival of the sanctuary network in 2014, not a single undocumented immigrant taking refuge in a church has been arrested on church premises. However, it has become increasingly common for ICE to arrest these immigrants if they step onto the street outside the church, even to keep an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
How did Angelica Secure Legal Residence?
The U Visa & The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act
Angelica successfully petitioned for a U visa, a visa that may be issued to an immigrant who has been the victim of a crime in the United States and is cooperating with law enforcement. The U visa was created as part of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. However, U Visa issuance is capped at 10,000 per year, and there is a significant backlog. In 2017, USCIS received more than 36,000 applications for U visas.
Angelica’s first application was denied, which is not unusual. She had a right to appeal the decision, but found herself in an all-too-common position: filing an appeal doesn’t stop USCIS from initiating deportation proceedings. While she was fighting for the right to stay in the United States, she could be picked up, detained, and sent back to Mexico at any time. So, Angelica—like many others in similar circumstances—went underground, hiding in a variety of homes before entering the church in October.
The U visa can provide a path to citizenship, although it can take several years to secure a visa, then a green card, then qualify for citizenship and proceed through the citizenship process.
Give Yourself the Benefit of an Experienced Immigration Lawyer
The struggle to secure legal residence isn’t new, but in the current political climate, refugees and others seeking visas and green cards face even greater obstacles. It can be difficult to know what the best next step is, or where to turn for help.
A local immigration attorney can be your best resource for information about the options available to you, the risks and likelihood of success, and how to move forward in your circumstances.
The information presented in this post is not legal advice and does not form a lawyer/client relationship. Laws and circumstances can differ and change.
Please contact us for a personal review of your situation