A Guatemalan woman given sanctuary in a Charlottesville church for more than two years has received a one-year stay of removal from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who had sought to deport her.
Maria Chavalan Sut, 46, came to the U.S. in 2015 after land grabbers threatened her family and later set her home on fire with the family inside. She and her four children survived, but all of their belongings burned.
She sought asylum in the U.S., saying that she would likely be killed if she returned to Guatemala.
The stay is ICE’s formal promise to not remove her for at least one year. That will give her time to challenge a removal order issued by a federal immigration court judge in July 2017.
So, after more than 900 days, Chavalan is free to leave Wesleyan Memorial United Methodist Church.
“I thank God and I thank each one of the good people in the United States, in Charlottesville, and at [the church] who received me with generous hearts and continue to support my application for asylum here,” Chavalan said in a statement.
“After 925 days at the church I can finally step out and enjoy fresh air and the wonders of nature without fear of being deported into the hands of executioners,” she said.
Chavalan has been living at the church since October 2018 after a federal immigration court ordered her removed because she missed a court date she didn’t know was scheduled.
ICE policy bars arrests at sensitive locations such as schools, medical and health care facilities and places of worship unless absolutely necessary, according to the agency’s website.
Alina Kilpatrick, an immigration attorney who represents Chavalan, said ICE’s move was the right one but it has no impact on Chavalan’s effort to legally stay in the country.
“Her [legal] case is with the Department of Justice and is in the appeals process. ICE has said they are not going to put her on an airplane, but it doesn’t have anything to do with her actual case. It is still pending and has been since December of 2018,” Kilpatrick said.
In similar circumstances, First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond hosted Abbie Arevalo-Herrera and two of her children, after the deadline to reach an agreement in her immigration case lapsed. She, too, has received a one-year stay from ICE.
Kilpatrick said Chavalan’s legal problem is similar to thousands of other immigrants who are caught in a systemic glitch between two federal agencies that do not share information resources.
ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security, enforces immigration laws. The Department of Justice operates and controls the immigration courts. The two federal agencies do not have a joint information system that can be accessed by their agents or officials.
ICE agents, however, are required by law to give immigrants a notice with the date and time of their immigration hearing. However, that hearing is scheduled later by the immigration courts and not ICE agents and ICE agents have no way of knowing what that hearing date will be.
If ICE agents don’t know the hearing date, neither do the immigrants they are supposed to tell.
Kilpatrick said Chavalan reported back to ICE within a year of her release as she was told to do by ICE agents. That’s when she discovered the Department of Justice had scheduled a hearing for her of which she was never informed.
Chavalan could not attend a hearing because she didn’t know it existed. But because she didn’t attend the hearing that she didn’t know existed, she was ordered to be removed from the country.
“She reported to ICE as she was told to do and went back a year later as she was told to do and said ‘here I am.’ That’s when she found she had an order of removal,” Kilpatrick said. “What happened to her is quite common. What’s different about Maria’s case is that she actually took sanctuary.”
Even people familiar with the U.S. legal system may not realize that the two agencies do not communicate. For instance, to change an address with ICE, an immigrant must file with homeland security an AR-11 form.
That does not change their address for immigration court notices, however. For that they must file with that court an E-33 form.
Neither agency communicates changes or schedules to the other, although their operations are closely tied together.
“It’s rigged so that people fail to appear,” Kilpatrick said. “A cop on the side of the road can tell you when to appear in court to contest your traffic ticket even though he doesn’t work for the court. But the Department of Homeland Security cannot do the same thing for immigration hearings. Our federal government can’t do something that a beat cop can.”
Kilpatrick said the system needs to be changed.
“This is something in immigration law that we should be screaming about, but because there is so much to scream about, this particular issue is not getting the attention it requires,” she said.
While the one-year stay does not end Chavalan’s legal issues, her supporters see it as a big step forward and say they were honored to help.
“We see offering sanctuary to Maria as a ministry of the church, as a journey, as the right thing to do,” said Maury Early, outreach chairperson at the church. “With the help and compassion of so many from the community, we have been blessed to offer Maria a safe space, prayers, and support, and we’ll continue to do so. Let us hope and work for safety for many.”
Chavalan said the stay, and its springtime arrival, mean a lot to her.
“In Guatemala it’s always spring. There are always flowers blooming and animals and birds being born,” she said. “Today I, too, feel reborn and renewed. With God, everything is possible.”