Fearing Deportation, Guatemalan LGBT Activist Finds Sanctuary in Austin Church

A group of people gathered Wednesday at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin to show support for Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale, an undocumented immigrant seeking sanctuary at the church to avoid deportation.
Lyanne Guarecuco
A group of people gathered Wednesday at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin to show support for Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale, an undocumented immigrant seeking sanctuary at the church to avoid deportation.

Sulma Carina Franco-Chamale hasn’t left the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin in more than two months.

“I can’t even go out to the parking lot because immigration [agents] could come, park there and apprehend me. I could be detained,” said Franco in Spanish.

And even though the church walls don’t offer Franco, who is undocumented, any legal protection, she’s hopeful that the sanctuary will deter immigration authorities from apprehending and deporting her.

Franco is the first person in Texas to seek sanctuary in a church since a nationwide sanctuary movement was reignited last year in Arizona. On Wednesday morning, Franco’s supporters stood by her during a press conference at the Unitarian church, chanting “Let Sulma Stay!” and holding signs that said “Sulma is welcome here.”

Natalie Hansen, one of Franco’s attorneys, said that staying in the church isn’t a permanent solution. The point is to raise awareness and to signal to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that Franco has the support of a broad community, Hansen said.

Franco, who is gay, left Guatemala in 2009. She’s afraid that if she were forced to return, she would be persecuted because of her sexual orientation. A 2012 United Nations report highlighted human rights abuses suffered by the LGBT community in Guatemala, including widespread discrimination, a constant threat of violence and even killings.

“I really wouldn’t have any job opportunities; I’d be discriminated against; I’d be afraid because since I’ve already been in the news and spoken about my sexual orientation, I could be seen as a person who doesn’t deserve to be in that society,” Franco said.

For six years, Franco has been trying to get asylum in the U.S.

Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale addresses a small crowd.
Sulma Catarina Franco-Chamale, an undocumented immigrant seeking sanctuary at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, addressed the small crowd during her press conference on Wednesday. She plans to remain a refugee at the church until she receives a positive response from ICE.

Franco was first detained in 2009 after she entered the U.S without authorization. After her release in 2010, she began to adapt to a place where she didn’t speak the language and lacked employment and documentation. Her first job in the U.S. was as a handywoman.

“We did construction work, we cleaned pools, trimmed trees. I don’t regret it nor am I embarrassed. I feel proud to be a hard-working, responsible woman,” Franco said.

Later, she opened a food truck with a partner.

“I pay taxes, I had my business. When we built our business together, we did everything legally because my documents were in order. All of the necessary inspections, the city permits, I didn’t have a problem with that,” Franco said.

On July 2, 2012, an immigration judge denied Franco’s asylum application. Her attorney at that time attempted to get the case reopened but filed in the wrong court. When Franco went in for a routine check-in, she was detained by ICE agents, who saw no progress in her case file because of the mistaken filing. Franco was in detention facilities in Texas and Arizona for eight months until her partner posted bond to get her released.

Now, Hansen is attempting to get her case heard again by presenting new documents, including some from Guatemala.

Fifty-six faith leaders have sent a letter to ICE, asking for Franco to be allowed to stay in the United States. “We will continue to stand by her until she is granted permission to remain in our country, in the community in which she has become a valued and integral member,” they wrote in the letter.

Marisol Caballero, assistant minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, spoke at the press conference Wednesday.

“As a queer, undocumented woman who’s an immigrant, who faces violence and even death if she returns to Guatemala, Sulma is particularly vulnerable to injustice. As a people of faith, we believe that we are called to stand with Sulma, who deserves the right to safety and happiness as much as I do, as much as all of you do,” Caballero said.

Franco plans to stay in sanctuary until she receives word from ICE that she can stay in the U.S.

“I’m trying to stay positive, and to think that a bad experience in my life lead me to very good people and organizations that have supported me,” Franco said.

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Published at 11:12 am CST