Hon­duran woman fights for asy­lum in Utah church

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - BRADY MCCOMBS

SALT LAKE CITY — A play­ground sur­rounded by a large shade tree stands right out­side First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, where Vicky Chavez and her two young daugh­ters have been tak­ing sanc­tu­ary for the past six months.

But Chavez never al­lows Yaretzi, 6, or Iss­abella, 11 months, to play there. They never step foot out­side the church.

Chavez, 30, is afraid that U.S. im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials would round them up and send them back to Hon­duras, where she said she fears for their safety be­cause of an abu­sive boyfriend. Her fears led her to seek asy­lum in the United States four years ago.

De­spite im­mi­gra­tion judges re­peat­edly deny­ing her re­quest, Chavez told re­porters Mon­day night that she’s deter­mined to re­main in the church and fight to stay in the Utah, where her par­ents and sib­lings live. In a long-shot ef­fort, her lawyers are seek­ing re­lief from a fed­eral ap­peals court.

“I shall keep fight­ing. I can help to be the voice of the other moth­ers that are seek­ing asy­lum from do­mes­tic abuse,” Chavez said, sur­rounded by sup­port­ers hold­ing signs. “We come to this coun­try to feel safe and pro­tected.”

She said see­ing other im­mi­grant par­ents sep­a­rated from their chil­dren at the bor­der makes her even more ret­i­cent to re­turn home and face a pos­si­ble split from her daugh­ters if she tried to seek U.S. asy­lum again.

“I can’t imag­ine feel­ing the pain of be­ing sep­a­rated from one of my daugh­ters,” Chavez said. “Sleep­ing in a de­ten­tion cen­ter is not easy at all. I lived it. And I lived it with my daugh­ter, but not sep­a­rated.”

U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment con­sid­ers Chavez an im­mi­gra­tion fugi­tive, spokesman Carl Rus­nok said in an email on Mon­day.

She en­tered the United States il­le­gally in June 2014 and was or­dered de­ported by a fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion judge in De­cem­ber 2016, Rus­nok said. Chavez ex­hausted her ap­peals on Jan. 30, he said.

That night, Chavez had a plane ticket home to San Pe­dro Sula, Hon­duras. But in­stead she ac­cepted an of­fer of sanc­tu­ary from First Unitarian Church.

She and her daugh­ters sleep in a con­verted Sun­day School room and spend most of their time in an­other room with a TV, easel and other games. Yaretzi, the 6-year-old, re­ceives piano classes in the chapel, and they dance and run in an open room with wood floors.

Baby Iss­abella learned to walk in the church and cel­e­brated her

first birth­day early there this month. Yaretzi gets tu­tored in­stead of at­tend­ing school.

“I feel sad be­cause I can’t give my daugh­ter a nor­mal life,” Chavez said.

The fam­ily is among 44 peo­ple tak­ing sanc­tu­ary in the United States, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion from Church World Ser­vice.

But they are the first known im­mi­grants to take sanc­tu­ary in Utah, ac­cord­ing

to lo­cal im­mi­gra­tion ad­vo­cates and the state chap­ter of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union. The prac­tice has been com­mon in states such as Ari­zona and Cal­i­for­nia but un­heard of in Utah, where Mor­mons ac­count for about two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion.

The Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints takes a com­pas­sion­ate stance on im­mi­gra­tion and re­cently said it was “deeply trou­bled” by the fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions at the bor­der but doesn’t of­fer sanc­tu­ary to im­mi­grants.

The Rev. Tom Gold­smith

of First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City said his con­gre­ga­tion of about 300 fam­i­lies voted a decade ago to wel­come a sanc­tu­ary case.

When a lo­cal im­mi­grant sup­port group pre­sented Chavez’s case, the con­gre­ga­tion de­cided to help, he said. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion strength­ened their com­mit­ment, he said.

“It’s too easy to just con­duct busi­ness as usual as a group of pre­dom­i­nantly white, priv­i­leged parish­ioners,” Gold­smith said. “There is a deep call­ing to widen the love and com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice. To not only show up at demon­stra­tions or protests or marches but to ac­tu­ally in a very tan­gi­ble form prove that we re­ally mean what we say.”

Some 200 church mem­bers and other vol­un­teers help en­sure the Chavez fam­ily is fed, ed­u­cated, sup­ported and pro­tected. Church mem­bers tu­tor Yaretzi. They shop for gro­ceries so the fam­ily has food they like.

And they take turns guard­ing the church’s one un­locked door around the clock, Gold- smith said. Though im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties gen­er­ally don’t en­ter churches, the church isn’t tak­ing any chances, he said.

U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agents must have ap­proval from a su­per­vi­sor be­fore they take ac­tion in churches be­cause houses of wor­ship are con­sid­ered “sen­si­tive lo­ca­tions,” which also in­clude schools and hos­pi­tals, Rus­nok said.

Chavez said she wants the chance to stay in the coun­try that has been home to her par­ents and sib­lings for decades and where she and her chil­dren en­joy a peace­ful life.

She and her sup­port­ers know she faces a steep hurdle af­ter U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, who over­sees im­mi­gra­tion courts, de­clared that do­mes­tic and gang vi­o­lence are gen­er­ally not suf­fi­cient grounds for asy­lum. Still, she says she has no choice.

“I don’t have fam­ily in Hon­duras. I don’t have a place to take my girls,” Chavez said. “I came be­cause I’m run­ning away from do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. We were re­ceiv­ing death threats. … I’m scared to re­turn to Hon­duras. Not just for me, but for my girls.”

P/RICK BOWMER

Within the walls

of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church, Hon­duran Vicky Chavez plays with her daugh­ter Iss­abella. Chavez says see­ing fel­low Cen­tral Amer­i­cans sep­a­rated from their chil­dren at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der makes her in­tent on try­ing to fight to stay in the United States where her en­tire fam­ily lives.

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