Editor's note: This story has been updated with a response from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
If federal immigration agents want to send Sulma Franco back to Guatemala, they will have to get through the Rev. Chris Jimmerson and other worshipers at Austin’s First Unitarian Universalist Church.
“We will resist it. We will invite a bunch of people with their yellow T-shirts to try and stand between [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and Sulma,” Jimmerson said, referring to gear the church's immigrant-rights supporters wear. “This is private church property, and it’s a tradition that law enforcement, including ICE, don’t [enter].”
Immigrants seeking safe haven in U.S. churches isn’t new. The movement was in full force decades ago when Central Americans across the country sought shelter, and the effort was rebranded last year after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform and the Obama administration continued deporting people at record levels.
But Franco’s story adds a new dimension to the movement: Being a lesbian, she says, will place a target on her back if she is forced to return home.
On Thursday Franco, 31, moved into a makeshift apartment at the Central Austin church in an effort to avoid being sent back to Central America, where she said she faces more abuse or possible death. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement had set Thursday as her deportation date, said organizers with United We Dream, an immigrant rights group that sponsored the event.
“I don’t want to go back. I’ve suffered enough there,” she said. “I’ve been discriminated against, abused and beaten up in every form because of my lifestyle.”
Franco sought asylum the United States in 2009. After passing her initial interview with immigration officers, who determined she had a “credible fear” of returning to Guatemala, she was released from detention and allowed to work. She reported to immigration officers every three months like she said she was asked.
But in June 2014, she was arrested and legal proceedings to deport her began. She blames her former attorney for failing to file the necessary paperwork that would have continued her asylum case.
Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman with the ICE field office in San Antonio, said in an email that Franco has been "afforded full due process and exhausted all legal options."
After an immigration judge ruled that Franco be deported in 2012, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed her appeal; and in February 2015, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed an additional petition for review.
"ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States," Pruneda said.
Franco's story is not uncommon for immigrants seeking asylum. Of the 4,250 immigrants from Guatemala who sought asylum in 2014, only 175 had their requests granted, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
But her perceived danger due to sexual orientation isn’t as widely known. According to the progressive Center for American Progress, there were 267,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants in the country in 2013, the year the first comprehensive study of the group was performed. For years, the federal Defense of Marriage Act prohibited U.S. citizens or legal residents from sponsoring a same-sex partner for a family-based visa, though court rulings have since made sponsorships possible.
A 2012 study conducted by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the George Washington University Law School International Human Rights Clinic concluded that Guatemala is one of the main offenders when it comes to violence against the LGBT community.
"The frequency and severity of violence against women — including lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender (LBT) women — demonstrates that the State of Guatemala has failed to protect women and to ensure the equal treatment of men and women," the report states.
Franco said she doesn’t know her fate – or even how long she will have to stay at the church. But for now she and her supporters are happy enough to draw attention to the unique plight the immigrants face.
“We face specific circumstances and specific situations that put us in detention and put us at risk of death if we were returned,” said Sheridan Aguirre, an organizer with United We Dream.
For Jimmerson, the church is in uncharted territory. He doesn’t know how long Franco will stay or whether the church can accept more immigrants in her situation. But he said offering the support makes sense.
“Unitarian Universalists are completely open to the LGBT community,” he said. “I am a gay man myself serving as a minister, so it was a good fit for us. We believe that she has a legal case to be here and in fact it’s our government that is acting illegally by deporting her.”