Local church offers sanctuary to refugee

Maria Chavalan Sut, a Guatemalan refugee, has been given sanctuary in the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church while she fights to stay in the United States. Photo by Eze Amos Maria Chavalan Sut, a Guatemalan refugee, has been given sanctuary in the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church while she fights to stay in the United States. Photo by Eze Amos

A Guatemalan woman who fled to America seeking asylum in 2015 has been ordered by federal immigration agents to leave the country. But instead, a local church has given her sanctuary while she fights to stay in the United States through the legal system.

“I have lived all of my life with violence,” said 44-year-old Maria Chavalan Sut in a press release. “My children are the reason I am fighting. I want them to live without all of the suffering I have experienced. Living in the church—this is the first time I can breathe, the first time I can sleep, the first time I have not felt afraid.”

Sut, from Guatemala’s indigenous Kaqchikel community, came to Virginia in 2015 after she was pressured to sell her Guatemala City property to a local group. When she refused, they set her home on fire with her entire family inside it, she says. But even before that, she says, she bore witness to the violence of the Guatemalan civil war, during which her uncles and cousins were buried alive.

Because she’s a member of a persecuted ethnic group, her attorney, Alina Kilpatrick, says she has a good case for being granted asylum in the United States—but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—or ICE—isn’t giving her the chance.

Kilpatrick says Sut received a notice to appear in court after passing an interview at the border, but the federal immigration agents didn’t include a date or time to appear, resulting in a judge ordering her deportation in her absence. Supporters reached out to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, seeking a safe space for Sut to stay. The congregation agreed within 24 hours.

As Sut waits in her small apartment filled with flowers, a motion to reopen her case is pending before an immigration judge in Arlington. And Pastor Isaac Collins says she’s welcome to say in their safe space for as long as she needs to.

“Maria is no longer alone in this country,” he said at an October 8 press conference attended by dozens of clergy and other supporters. “In Christ, there are no borders, there is only the kingdom.”

Speaking through an interpreter, Sut smiled shyly as she told her story, and apologized when she became emotional. She said she is not currently working, but her goal is to send money to her family in Central America to help support her four children, and to help rebuild their home that was destroyed in the fire.

Andrea Negrete, an organizer with ICE Out of Cville, says Sut’s return to Guatemala is not an option.

“In Maria’s case, deportation is a death sentence,” she says.

When asked what keeps ICE from busting into the church and detaining Sut, Kilpatrick answered flatly, “nothing.” Except for a “sensitive locations” memo from the Obama administration, which asks, but doesn’t require, that immigration agents don’t make arrests in locations such as churches, schools, and hospitals.

The attorney also represents Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, who has lived in a Richmond church since June, and said taking on these sanctuary clients is her way of standing up to the current administration.

As she wrapped up her comments on Columbus Day—now officially recognized as Indigenous Peoples Day in Charlottesville—Kilpatrick added, “I am here to make reparations for what my ancestors have done.”

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