PHILADELPHIA — An undocumented Mexican woman who has spent more than three years inside Philadelphia churches to avoid deportation is expected to leave sanctuary soon, after ICE officials confirmed she is no longer a priority for enforcement.
Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her four children intend to exit the Germantown Mennonite Church, and to live freely, while pursuing a particular visa that would allow them to live and work permanently in the United States, supporters said Tuesday.
It represents a dramatic turn from enforcement under the Trump administration, when Hernandez was liable to be seized and removed from the United States if she dared step beyond church walls.
New Biden administration guidelines open the door to freedom by vastly narrowing the scope of federal immigration enforcement, directing agents to focus on those who pose risks to national security, border security or public safety.
“This is a huge victory for the family,” said Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which supports the family. “This news that she’s not a priority for deportation lifts a huge weight.”
Across the country, organizers have pushed the Biden administration to consider relief for families in sanctuary, she said.
Hernandez fled to this country in August 2015 after being threatened by the same drug criminals who killed her brother and two nephews. They were denied asylum and took sanctuary only days before their Dec. 15, 2017, deportation date, living first in the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia and, since December 2018, in the Germantown church.
“Carmela and her children fought for their rights and freedom for over three years,” said Philadelphia immigration lawyer David Bennion, who represents Hernandez, “and thanks to their courage and the love and support of the community, they will finally breathe free again.”
Hernandez was ill and unable to comment Tuesday. Her supporters believe that an application for a U visa, which allows undocumented migrants who help the police solve crimes to stay and work in the U.S., will be the path to the family’s permanent life in this country.
The application has been made through Hernandez’s children, who were assaulted during a 2019 break-in at the church.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to comment beyond their official, one-sentence statement, offered in response to questions: “Ms. Hernandez is not a priority for enforcement at this time.”
It comes less than two weeks after a man in Missouri ended 3 1/2 years in sanctuary when ICE declared he was no longer a priority for deportation.
“Today we celebrate as I leave sanctuary and reunite with my family after being separated for 1,252 days,” Alex Garcia said after walking out of the Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood, Missouri, according to KFVS-TV.
The change in enforcement represents a U-turn from the Trump administration, when anyone without official papers could be arrested at any time. That approach helped drive Hernandez and dozens of others into churches across the country, where many have lived for two to three years.
Hernandez and her children have spent longer in sanctuary than any of the four families to seek refuge in Philadelphia churches in recent times — the others were able to leave — and their freedom has been the constant cause of activists.
Years of vigils, marches, rallies, political outreach and public pleas did not move the federal government to grant the family permission to stay in the U.S. or to leave sanctuary and pursue their case from a position of freedom.
She and her children all have deportation orders.
Her legal efforts have been unsuccessful. She has formally sought a stay of removal, which generally bars deportation for a year, and also asked for deferred action, which is indefinite but can be reversed.
Hernandez also is appealing the denial of an earlier U visa application, which she sought as the victim of a 2017 attempted extortion in New Jersey.
As far as is known, Hernandez left sanctuary only once, on Oct. 10, 2018, to try to confront Sen. Bob Casey about her case at his Center City office. He was not there, and she returned to sanctuary that night after she and her supporters staged a daylong sit-in.
Today some 40 undocumented immigrants are living in churches in about 16 states, seeking to forestall removal to homelands where they say they could be hurt or killed. Churches are considered safe because ICE guidelines dissuade agents from making arrests at designated “sensitive locations,” such as houses of worship, schools and hospitals.
Sanctuary represents bold defiance of what activist churches call unjust immigration laws. It offers protection to families but also alerts enforcement agencies to their exact location — and extracts other costs as well.
Depression can be common among those stuck inside. Nerves fray. Both those living in churches and their supporters on the outside can tire as freedom campaigns drag on.
Hernandez and her three eldest children — teenagers Fidel, Keyri, and Yoselin — were severely sickened by COVID-19 in spring and early summer 2020.
The goal of sanctuary is to buy time, for legal cases to go forward, for advocates to generate pressure, for elections that might change the government’s direction. And the tactic has worked in Philadelphia.
In October 2017, undocumented Mexican immigrant Javier Flores Garcia left a Center City church after 11 months, having been granted a U visa.
In March 2020, Suyapa Reyes and her four children ended 18 months inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown when the government reversed itself and said the Honduran family could stay in the country.
In December, Clive and Oneita Thompson announced they would leave the Tabernacle United Church in University City after the government dropped its deportation case against them. The Thompsons, originally from Jamaica, took sanctuary with their two youngest U.S.-citizen children in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in August 2018, moving two years later to the Tabernacle church.
The new ICE guidelines do not bar the deportation of those who are in the country illegally, but direct agents to focus on the most dangerous offenders.
The guidance defines the national security priority as people who have committed terrorism or espionage, or are suspected of being involved in those crimes. Border security includes those taken into custody at the line or another port of entry. Public safety applies to those convicted of an aggravated felony, or an offense committed as part of a criminal street gang or drug cartel.
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