Attorney says ICE policy benefits woman seeking asylum in church

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A Guatemalan woman taking shelter in a Charlottesville church to avoid deportation is relying on an Obama-era policy that prevents immigration enforcement in sensitive spaces including hospitals, schools and churches.

The 2011 policy is known informally as the Morton Memo, named for former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.

According to the ICE website, the agency does still follow the policy, and the attorney for the woman seeking asylum believes the agency won't detain her client as long as she remains in the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.

"I think that it would be very bad for ICE, only in terms of public opinion," said Alina Kilpatrick, who is representing 44-year-old Maria Chavalan Sut.

An ICE spokesperson declined to immediately comment on Chavalan Sut's case, citing a need for more information.

ICE's "sensitive locations" policy does have exemptions for people who are threats to the country or their communities, but Kilpatrick says Chavalan Sut, a member of a persecuted indigenous community in Guatemala, has a valid asylum claim and poses no danger to anyone.

At a Monday press conference at the church, Chavalan Sut was flanked by immigrant rights activists and clergy members. Kilpatrick says the public announcement was deliberate.

"We're not trying to hide Maria. In fact, the church, Pastor Isaac [Collins] himself, emailed the Richmond ICE supervisor as soon as Maria came in," she said. "So the church is allowing Maria to stay there knowing that if ICE wants her, they can come and get her."

Kilpatrick says Chavalan Sut was never told the date and time of her asylum hearing. She has appealed her deportation order, and the church has agreed to shelter her until that process plays out.

She says the Methodist church is following a long Christian tradition of offering sanctuary, and that the U.S. Constitution protects its right to do so.

"They see this as a part of their faith," Kilpatrick said. "So I believe that if ICE were to come in, they would be visibly trampling over the church's exercise of its First Amendment right."

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