On the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Honduran mother Vicky Chávez said she jolted out of bed and turned on the television in the room of the Unitarian church she calls home.
Over the last three years, Chávez hasn’t been able to take her daughters to Disneyland — or anywhere else, for that matter — because they have been living in the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City.
When Chávez lost her last appeal to stay in the country, after an immigration judge rejected her asylum claim and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued her a deportation order, the church offered her a temporary shelter.
All she needed to do was show up, and she and her daughters could stay for as long as they needed.
“All of my family is here in the United States,” Chávez told CNN.
Recently, ICE has categorized churches along with schools, hospitals, and other places of worship as “sensitive locations” where enforcement officers need prior authorization to conduct raids and arrests.
Because of this, a number of churches across America have been able to open their doors to shelter immigrants and asylum seekers who are facing deportation orders.
While President Biden’s proposed comprehensive immigration reform for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US could mean an end to the need for these kinds of incidents in the future, the sanctuary has been one of the only options for immigrants like Chávez who ran out of alternatives and fear persecution in their home country.
“I couldn’t take my girls back to Honduras,” Chávez explained. “I knew that I had to stay and fight.”
Since the day that she moved to the church, the fight began.
Chávez has been speaking out to local media outlets, then as part of the National Sanctuary Collective, a network of immigrants churches across the United States and their faith-based allies, dedicated to raising the voices of those who have sought sanctuary.
The network estimates that there are around 50 immigrants living in sanctuary at this time.
“Some of those in the sanctuary have stories in the US that go back for decades,” David Bennion, an immigration attorney who represents some of the immigrants in the sanctuary and the director of the Free Migration Project, told CNN. “There are others who came more recently to seek asylum and had their cases wrongly denied.”
Many of those currently living in sanctuary say they sought protection in response to the Trump administration expanding deportation priorities, criminalizing all undocumented immigrants even if they had never had an encounter with police authorities.
To live in a sanctuary means never leaving the church grounds, even for a breath of fresh air to a short walk.
In addition, immigrants in the sanctuary cannot receive stimulus checks and are nervous that they might not be able to access the vaccine. Instead, they depend on the church community for all of their needs, a difficult situation that has gotten even more challenging during the pandemic.
Chávez said that ‘her oldest daughter is starting to ask questions,’ adding that ever since she started online school, her 9-year-old is wondering why their family lives in a church, and whether or not she should tell her friends about where her family lives.
“Meanwhile for my youngest, her entire world is me and this church,” she said, adding that she was only 5 months old when they sought sanctuary three years ago. “I don’t know what is going to happen when I bring her to preschool and she meets other kids for the first time.”
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