Lives of anxiety: Immigrants continue to seek sanctuary in U.S. churches
NEW YORK | Amanda Morales sees her children off to school each day from the entrance of a Gothic church, but she won’t even venture onto the sidewalk for fear of what may happen if she leaves the building where she has been a virtual prisoner for more than two months.
Ms. Morales has been living in two small rooms of the Holyrood Episcopal Church at the northern edge of Manhattan since August, shortly after immigration authorities ordered her deported to her homeland of Guatemala. She says she cannot go back to her country and does not want to leave her three kids, who are all U.S. citizens by birth, so she sought sanctuary at a house of worship.
“Being cooped up like this is starting to drive me crazy,” the 33-year-old said on a recent morning as her two oldest children headed off to school escorted by a volunteer and she stayed behind with her youngest. “Some nights I hardly sleep.”
At least two dozen immigrants have sought sanctuary at U.S. churches since the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency stepped up arrests by 40 percent under President Trump.
Ms. Morales provided a glimpse of her experience to The Associated Press, describing a life of constant anxiety that involves staying hidden all day except for a few furtive trips to a nearby dentist and occasional appearances on the church steps.
She has reason to be anxious. As a fugitive, she could be arrested at any moment, though the agency considers churches to be “sensitive locations” and generally does not pursue people inside.
Ms. Morales stays close to the doorway as her kids head off to school, holding her toddler son’s bottle as he plays in the wooden pews. It is the only glimpse of sunlight she will get all day.
Most of her life revolves around a small church library where there are two bunk beds for the family of four to share and an adjacent room with a refrigerator, small table, a few chairs and a microwave oven. They eat simple meals, a lot of macaroni and cheese or chicharron and yuca.
The stately church is empty on a weekday morning. Ms. Morales spends much of the day chatting with parishioners who come from the mostly Latino neighborhood.
Three days a week, while her daughters are at school, volunteers give her English language classes while 2-year-old David watches cartoons on her phone. The older girls — 10-year-old Dulce and 8-year-old Daniela — come back in the afternoon with their escort, and the family tries their best to pass the time inside.
“I never thought this would happen to me,” Ms. Morales said at one point, shaking her head sadly.
Since 2014 at least 50 publicly known cases have emerged of people seeking sanctuary in churches for immigrationrelated reasons, according to the Rev. Noel Anderson, a coordinator for the Church World Service, a New York organization that supports the sanctuary efforts. Of those, 30 have come up since Mr. Trump took office in January and pledged a harder line on immigration.
Eighteen of the 50 eventually won legal reprieves, and their deportation orders were canceled. More than half are still waiting in limbo like Ms. Morales and fearing that they could be picked up suddenly, just as several immigrants in Virginia were when they got arrested in February while leaving a homeless shelter at a Methodist church.
Mr. Trump has said that anyone in the United States illegally is subject to deportation, unlike under President Barack Obama, who said immigrants with longstanding ties to the United States and clean records were not a priority.
More than 97,000 immigrants who live illegally in the U.S. were detained over the first eight months of this year, a 43 percent increase over the same period in 2016, according to ICE data.
David Carvajal and his sisters, all U.S.-born, live in a church in the Bronx with their mother Amanda Morales, an illegal Guatemalan immigrant fearful of deportation.