Normally, people seek refuge in a place of worship for solace and comfort. For Sulma Franco, it's to avoid being deported.
Franco, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who settled in San Antonio before moving up the road to Austin, where she's now holed up in a church hoping that immigration authorities won't bust in to take her away.
"From the time I first came to the U.S., I presented myself to immigration authorities every three months," she told the San Antonio Current in Spanish in a series of interviews last month from her makeshift home at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin.
But suddenly, after five years living in the country with no problems as an asylum seeker, she was told that she faced deportation.
"I didn't have any problems until then," said Franco, 31. "The immigration official said to me, 'You know what, I want to tell you your case is closed and you'll be detained.' As simple as that," she said.
And so Franco's pursuit of the American Dream wilted. Her thriving Austin food truck business — La Ilusión, or The Dream — shuttered as she spent months in detention in Laredo and Arizona before posting a bond for her release to await her final deportation order.
But after meeting with supportive activists, she accepted an offer for sanctuary at the Unitarian church, where she has lived since June 11.
Meg Barnhouse, a senior minister at the church, said the decision to house Franco was a no-brainer, even though providing political sanctuary was a first for them. She hopes the action calls attention to the country's draconian immigration laws leaving broken families in their wake.
"We respect the laws of this nation," Barnhouse asserted. "But the immigration system is broken and needs to be revamped ... We want to be part of the conversation of fixing the system in a way that's not just with words."
What puzzles Franco the most is that she has repeatedly heard that the Department of Homeland Security supposedly targets criminal undocumented immigrants for arrest and deportation. That doesn't fit her profile.
"My record is clean. I'm not a criminal ... I was paying taxes on my business, and was contributing to society. I had a work permit, driver's license, business permits that were all in my name."
Franco wondered if there was another reason why immigration authorities could have had a change of heart about letting her stay — her sexual orientation.
Franco, a lesbian whose Mexican-born partner now lives in San Antonio, served as inspiration her food truck business.
"Simply because I have no child here, I'm treated in the worst way," she said. "Because of not having children and my sexual preference."
For years, Franco shuttled between Austin and San Antonio, tending to her business off Ben White Boulevard and forming a home with her longtime partner at their home in Live Oak.
Franco said she first worked as freelance laborer — painting, landscaping, trimming tree branches — in San Antonio before taking her partner's advice and setting up a food truck in Austin.
The Homeland Security agency tasked with arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to discuss details of Franco's case. The agency's San Antonio office declined an interview, but provided a statement.
"Sulma Franco-Chamale, a national of Guatemala, has been afforded full due process and exhausted all legal options," according to the statement, which noted she was ordered deported in 2012 and her court appeals in 2013 and earlier this year were turned down.
And then she became a fugitive after failing to report to ICE office in SA last month as instructed.
But Franco disputes much of that chronology, saying faulty representation from a former lawyer not filing documents property on her behalf created the domino effect that has shattered her life. She has since hired another lawyer whom she hopes will figure out a way for her to stay legally. She declined to identify the lawyers.
Meanwhile, Franco spends her days as comfortable as she can without the liberties of home life and she laments the loss of her fledgling business. She's allowed to have visitors — including her partner and friends — and she's in touch with her sisters in Guatemala.
Her sexual preference is widely condemned in her home country and she's afraid of Guatemala's anti-LGBT environment if she's sent back. She said she has had friends killed for being gay.
She became a hate crime victim when she was assaulted during her college years. En route to a nightclub with friends in a taxi, she and a friend were instead driven to a dark corner where they were attacked, she recalled. As they fled, assailants shot at them, hitting Franco's friend in the shoulder.
"In my country, these are things that happen because of sexual orientation," she said. "That's why I fear returning. They can't tolerate the idea that two women can fall in love, have a child, run a business. If I fled this, why would I want to return? Here, I was able to take my girlfriend to a restaurant and have no problems."
But even in the throes of her limited freedom, she remains optimistic — a state of mind buttressed by her academic background.
"My knowledge of psychology helps me to be strong and lets me know I am able to do this, and maybe help inspire others to emerge from the shadows," she said.
For now — enveloped by the embrace of ecclesiastical saviors — she waits. And she hopes.
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