Aura Hernandez, a 37-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, moved into Manhattan’s Fourth Universalist Society church about two weeks ago. She is hoping to avoid deportation to her home country, which she left in 2005 fleeing an abusive relationship.
According to ICE, Ms Hernandez is a fugitive. According to the members of the Fourth Universalist Society, she is their newest congregation member.
“We want to teach others about our undocumented population and why their humanity matters,” said the church’s pastor, Schuyler Vogel, according to the New York Daily News. “Aura may not be an American citizen, but she is someone who believes in our values. I certainly don’t like living in a country that thinks it’s okay to tear children from their mother.”
Ms Hernandez now lives on the upper floor of the church with her 15-month-old daughter, Camille. Her 10-year-old son, Daniel, will live with his father – also an undocumented immigrant – in a New York City suburb until he finishes the school year. Both children were born in the US, Ms Hernandez says, and are US citizens.
Ms Hernandez was first stopped by border patrol agents in 2005, shortly after she crossed the border into Texas. She later moved to Westchester, New York, and met with ICE regularly from 2013 to 2017, according to the Daily News. But last month, she claims, ICE told her there would be no more check-ins. She would have to go back to Guatemala.
"After both a motion to reopen and an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), an immigration judge upheld the original order of removal," ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow said in a statement. "Hernandez did not report as required and is now considered an ICE fugitive."
"She cannot come out because she will be kidnapped," Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz said, while participating in a silent Jericho walk for Aura Hernandez, who has taken sanctuary from ICE. Her 10yo old, Daniel, walks alongside Ruiz holding a sign "Please don't deport my mommy" pic.twitter.com/QetRMkQ54a
— Rajvi Desai (@rajviedesai) March 29, 2018
The 130 members of the Manhattan’s Fourth Universalist Society have pledged to care for Ms Hernandez - bringing her food, doing her laundry – for as long as she remains in the sanctuary, according to the New York Times. From the safety of the church, she plans to lobby for the ability to stay permanently.
“I don’t intend to stand here with my arms crossed, and do nothing,” she said, according to the Times. “I have to stand up and raise my voice because an injustice is being committed to me and to us. I think I’m here for a reason.”
Ms Hernandez is one of more than 40 other immigrants who are currently sheltered in houses of worship across US, according to data compiled by the Church World Service. Places of worship are seen as a safe alternative for those avoiding deportation, because they are considered sensitive sites that ICE is supposed to avoid.
Of the 37 people who sought sanctuary in houses of worship in 2017, nine of them were granted some sort of reprieve from deportation, according to the Church World Service.