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Guatemalan immigrant taking sanctuary in Charlottesville church to avoid deportation

Maria Chavalan Sut was ordered to be removed from the U.S. late last month

Chavalan Sut sought sanctuary at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church last week.
Chavalan Sut sought sanctuary at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church last week.

A 44-year-old indigenous woman born in Guatemala — currently residing in the U.S. without immigration papers — is seeking asylum in a Charlottesville-area methodist church, she announced at a press conference Monday afternoon. This is one of the first publicized cases of a person seeking refuge in a Charlottesville church from immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump, whose administration has taken a hardline stance for deporting undocumented immigrants.

Maria Chavalan Sut has been living at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, immediately adjacent to Grounds, for approximately one week.

In Guatemala, Chavalan Sut faced persecution for her indigenous Kaqchikel ancestry. Her home was burned down when she refused to leave. 

“I came to the United States because I was not feeling safe in my country,” she said through an interpreter at the press conference.

While Chavalan Sut’s attorney Alina Kilpatrick said she has a “really good case” for asylum, an error on her notice to appear in court — Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not include a date or time for the hearing — stopped her from telling a judge about her persecution at home. She was deported in absentia, ordered to leave at the end of last month. 

“They have been pressuring me, that I have to buy my ticket to Guatemala. I have a lawyer that’s doing the legal work, but we still don’t have an answer. So that’s why I asked for refuge in this church — to try to look for a possible answer.”

ICE rarely takes enforcement action against individuals in sensitive locations, including churches. Traditionally, individuals have be able to seek “sanctuary” from law enforcement in churches.

Isaac Collins, a pastor at Wesley Methodist, said at the press conference that the church’s congregation empathized with Chavalan Sut’s story.

“Our congregation heard the voice of Jesus Christ in Maria’s story,” Collins said. “She is not safe in her native land because of colonialism and imperialism, and she is not welcome in the United States because of our continued allegiance to white supremacy in its many forms.”

Collins added that there is a moral imperative for white churches to become sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants.

“We have the resources to create a massive nationwide sanctuary movement. We have the funds,” Collins said. “The only question is: Do we have the moral courage?”

Kilpatrick said she was also inspired by morality to help Chavalan Sut.

“I am here to stand up to the administration and do everything I can within the law and fight them and lob at them everything possible until Maria and all of my other clients are safe and free,” she said.


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