Shelter from storm
“I first met Amanda Morales on the day that she took sanctuary in Holyrood Church in August 2017. Instead of checking in to the immigration office with a plane ticket to Guatemala, as the authorities had ordered, Amanda and her three children – Dulce, Daniela and David – sought refuge. She had actually bought the ticket to Guatemala but just couldn’t bring herself to leave. She told me she couldn’t abandon her children [who were born in the US and not subject to the deportation order] but she was scared of taking them back to the gang culture in Guatemala that she’d fled from in 2004. She was desperate.
“Holyrood Church isn’t her local church and she’d actually never even been there before, but she had heard it was part of the New Sanctuary Coalition [an interfaith network of congregations and activists helping immigrants resist detention and deportation] and that ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] officials are reluctant to remove people from religious buildings. She asked if she could stay and I don’t think she could believe how welcome she was made to feel. Not only did the church’s reverend Luis Barrios, who had only been in his position for six months, welcome her in, but the entire congregation, the entire community, did too.
“Holyrood Church wasn’t really suitable to be lived in, especially not by a family with young children. But soon an army of volunteers had turned the library into a bedroom and fitted a shower into the bathroom. However, it’s not just about having a physical space to live in – the congregation really take care of the family. Volunteers deliver hot meals every afternoon, and there is a timetable for people to pick up the children and take them to school. There’s also a ‘sanctuary watch’, a team of volunteers who look out for ICE officials around the church. The family has been visited by a legal team, doctors, social workers and psychologists. It’s amazing to see. The congregation talks about what an incredible blessing it is to have Amanda and her children in their church and Amanda has talked to me about how moved she is, about how on one hand it is the worst time of her life, because she is unable to go outside, and is scared for her family and her future, but how on the other hand she has never experienced the amount of love she has been shown by these strangers.
“Amanda doesn’t have any kind of criminal record. The only crime she has committed was when she entered the US without a visa while fleeing for her life when she was 20. I am from Mexico, and it is difficult for people to comprehend the violence in my country and other countries in Central America. It’s not safe for many people. In Guatemala a gang tried to recruit Amanda and her brother. These gangs are not people you refuse, so Amanda fled to America. When they got here they should have sought political asylum – but they didn’t. They did build a life here, though.
“Amanda moved to Long Island where she found a job in a factory, met her partner and had children. She became known to the authorities in 2012 when she was involved in a car accident. They asked to see her papers and found out she had entered the country illegally. Still, they didn’t ask her to leave. Until recently the unwritten rule about undocumented migrants was that providing you didn’t commit a crime you were safe to stay.
“Amanda initially had to check in with ICE every three months, then once a year. This went on for five years until, in July 2017, at her first scheduled check-in under President Trump [during whose first year in office arrests of undocumented migrants without a criminal record by ICE have risen by 171 percent], she was asked to leave the country. Imagine that one day you have to abandon your home and your work, that your children need to either leave the country where they were born or live without you and you have to return to a place where you are scared for your life. What would you do? The US has long considered itself a place where people can live without fear. But it is no longer true. The language under Trump is openly aggressive. It is explicit that we are simply not welcome any more.
“It is children who are most affected by this more aggressive stance. Amanda’s oldest daughter, Dulce, is ten. Daniela is eight and David turned three in January 2018 – he’s spent nearly a quarter of his life living in the church. The experience of living in a sanctuary has to have a psychological impact. The sisters are afraid that one day they will return to the church from school and find their mother is no longer there. It’s not a normal childhood, but Amanda and everyone else are trying to make it as fun as they can. I went to David’s birthday party in the church. We sang, we danced, we broke a piñata. It was a really special day. The church has become the children’s playground. Daniela and Dulce are learning to play the church’s two organs and they are adapting. When I first met Dulce, she was crying all the time. She was super nervous, super anxious. Now she is stronger and even writing her own story about life in the church. They have had to change schools to be at one closer to the church and they are aware that they are somehow different. It is important to remember that for every person you hear about being deported an entire family is affected.
“The family have been living in Holyrood for nine months now – and nobody knows how much longer they will be there. Amanda really wants to go out. She wants to have her life back again, but the decision is at the discretion of ICE. They have rejected Amanda’s lawyers’ requests for a stay of deportation and to begin the process of applying for asylum. The lawyers are appealing. Amanda has not shied away – she holds press conferences and speaks freely about her case, but I’m not sure if the fact she is visible will help her or not. It might just make her more of a target.
“The Morales family are not the only ones living in sanctuary. I know of at least another six families currently living inside churches, but most of them do not want to go public.
“In the last nine months Amanda has been outside just a handful of times. She usually only dares to go onto the church steps to speak at press conferences, but in September she needed to go to the dentist. She was in agony and waited as long as she could, but the pain was too much and she needed a root canal. The dentist’s surgery was just 300 feet away, but it was so tense it felt like something out of a movie. Volunteers went out first looking for officials, then Amanda followed and literally ran to the dentist. There was silence in the church as we waited for her to return – everyone was so worried, but she made it back. That was the last time she walked in sunlight.
“Nobody really knows how Amanda’s story is going to end. ICE seem more determined than ever to deport her, but the church is equally sure it can keep her safe. In the middle are Dulce, Daniela and David – just waiting to find out if they will go home.”
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