Her search began on Thanksgiving day. Carmela Hernández went from church to church in Philadelphia, knocking on doors. Her asylum appeal had just been denied, and she and her four children had been issued deportation orders. They had until November 29 to turn themselves in to immigration officials. Her lawyer advised her to go back to Mexico, which she had fled in 2015 after three of her relatives were killed. But Hernández wasn’t going back: she had read on Facebook that some people facing deportation had found sanctuary in a church in Philadelphia. She just didn’t know which church, so she tried dozens.
“I think all the churches’ cameras have recordings of me knocking on their doors,” Hernández told me, speaking in Spanish. “I asked for information and people would tell me, Do you know how large Philadelphia is?”
With her kids in the car, Hernández kept searching all day, every day, without stopping or eating until evening. “I was no longer hungry from looking,” she said. “I wanted to find someone who would say, We are going to help you.” Eventually, someone gave her the address of a sanctuary church, but one of the numbers in the address was wrong, so she circled around trying to figure out the correct location, “like a puzzle,” she said. Finally, she reached a member of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia — a grassroots coalition fighting for justice for immigrants. By then, they had heard about a woman going around the city looking for sanctuary — but they had nowhere for her to go immediately, and more than 100 other deportation cases to deal with. “We asked her to come back the next day,” said Sheila Quintana, an organizer with the group.
The following day — a day before she was supposed to turn herself in to immigration officials — Hernández showed up with her bags and children, ages 15 to 9. “I told them, If you are going to help me, help me, because I can’t go back to my house.” The people Hernández had been living with were undocumented, and she knew that if ICE went to look for her there, they would be detained as well.
Organizers with the sanctuary movement started calling their member congregations — until the pastor of the Church of the Advocate, a black Episcopalian church in North Philadelphia with a long history of civil rights activism, agreed to take the family in that same night.
“I thought a sanctuary was like, you find the church and knock, and go inside and then you stay,” said Hernández. “But it’s not like that. A sanctuary movement is very difficult to find.”
Hernández is one of at least 32 people who have publicly taken sanctuary from deportation in churches in 14 states across the country. Those seeking and offering sanctuary in church do so hoping that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to honor agency guidelines that list places of worship as “sensitive locations,” where officers are not to conduct enforcement actions. So far, ICE has kept out of churches — even as agents have arrested parents outside their children’s schools and even detained a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy as she left a hospital, both “sensitive locations” under the guidelines.
A spokesperson for ICE told The Intercept in an email that the sensitive locations policy, which “remains in effect, provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations should generally be avoided, and require either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action.”
For the past few weeks, Hernández and her children — 15-year-old Fidel, 13-year old Keyri, 11-year-old Yoselin, and 9-year-old Edwin — have been living in the basement of the Advocate, a labyrinthine gothic church adorned with stained glass windows and murals honoring the civil rights movement. The church was home to the National Conference of Black Power in 1968, and the Black Panther Conference of 1970. The first ordination of women as Episcopal priests took place here in 1974. Today, the Advocate is one of the first black churches to offer sanctuary.
Reverend Renee McKenzie-Hayward, the church’s pastor, said yes as soon as she got the call. “I was just responding to the human need,” she told me. “This is just in keeping with the nature and the tradition of the church of the Advocate. It’s just simply in our DNA; that’s who we are and this is what we do.”
“The oppression that we face we really face as people of color,” she added. “We recognize that white supremacy is a problem for all people of color, and for all people.”
“Typically, communities are siloed into fighting for themselves separately and we see this as an opportunity to reach across communities and build relationships,” said Quintana. “It’s in everybody’s best interest to be a united front right now, because everyone is under attack.”
Everyone at the church has welcomed Hernández and her children. As we spoke, in a cloister behind the church’s soup kitchen, an elderly man she didn’t know walked by. “God’s gonna take care of y’all,” he told her.
For now, Hernández is living in a small classroom. When I visited, her children stretched out on mismatched mattresses spread on the floor, absorbed in their phones and tablets while a soap opera played on a desktop computer. Toiletries lined a blackboard, and a few clothes were folded on the shelves of a bookcase.
Since local news media covered their case, the children have been receiving gifts from strangers touched by their story. I watched as they unwrapped a domino set someone had sent them, while the pastor of a different congregation dropped by with a puzzle, and a church volunteer brought cookies. The children met Santa at a holiday event the church held for neighborhood children. They spend their days in the converted classroom, or roaming around the church kitchen, open daily for free meals for community members in need. On a recent snow day, they played outdoors, without leaving the church premises and under the watch of volunteers with the sanctuary movement.
The children, who like their mother have deportation orders, stopped going to school when they went into sanctuary, and Hernández and organizers are evaluating whether to enroll them in Philadelphia public schools in January — mobilizing the public in hopes that ICE will leave them alone on their way to and from school — or whether to homeschool them at the church. Asked whether the children would be able to attend school, the ICE spokesperson said: “We don’t speculate on pending or proposed enforcement actions but our sensitive location policy remains in effect.”
Hernández told me she feels safe here, but during our interview she watched nervously every time an elevator door opened. Staff at the church office, who have been trained to identify potential law enforcement officers, asked to verify that I had permission to visit Hernández before allowing me to see her.
“ICE cannot be trusted,” said Quintana.
Hernández has been wearing an ankle bracelet since the day she crossed the border on foot from Tijuana to San Diego, more than two years ago. She asked for asylum as soon as she walked into the Unites States, and was told she had to take the ankle bracelet or go back.
A light on the device flashes red every time the battery is running out, shortly before making a noise and sending a light shock up Hernández’s leg. Since she went into sanctuary, the light has been flashing red even when the battery is fully charged. When she swaps the battery, a message on the bracelet tells her to go see her immigration officer, she said.
ICE agents have also been calling her cellphone — sometimes late at night. At first, Hernández asked them to talk to her lawyer. “They said we want to speak with you, where are you?” she said. Now she no longer picks up.
“Ms. Hernández’s is required to check in with ERO Officers,” the ICE spokesperson told The Intercept, adding that trained officers “make a determination on the most appropriate level of case management and technology assignment.”
“ERO officers do not harass Ms. Hernández,” the spokesperson added, referring to Enforcement and Removal Operations officers.
Hernández said she fled Mexico after one of her nephews was beheaded by criminal cartels. A second nephew was shot in the head. In July 2015, a month before she left, her brother was killed. Then the man who she believed killed him showed up at her house. He had been demanding 300 pesos a week to leave her alone, but when she couldn’t pay anymore he came and started beating her. When her older daughter, 11 years old at the time, tried to intervene, he pushed her onto a bucket full of glass bottles.
On Facebook Hernández discovered she could apply for asylum in the United States. At the border, she was separated from her oldest son. He was 13 at the time, but looked tall for his age, and immigration officials said that Mexicans always lied about their age.
After being held for three nights and agreeing to the ankle bracelet, Hernández joined a relative in Pennsylvania. Eventually she moved to New Jersey, where she worked in a Mexican shop. Her application for asylum and two appeals were denied.
Hernández thinks officials didn’t read her application. “They see it says asylum, they say rejected,” she told me. “Without checking why someone is seeking asylum.” Hernández has no idea how long she and her children will have to live in the Advocate’s basement. Her third asylum appeal is pending. The length of sanctuary varies — in Arizona, a man has been living in a church for a year and six months. In Philadelphia, undocumented father Javier Flores Garcia spent nearly a year living in sanctuary at the Arch Street United Methodist Church, before finally leaving in October.
On Saturday, members of the church joined Hernández and the children for a posada — a holiday tradition in Mexico. For the nine days leading up to Christmas eve, Mexican families reenact Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for refuge. Participants move in a procession to friends, family, and neighbors’ homes, where they ask for shelter. The hosts open their homes, and everyone celebrates with tamales and piñatas.
The parallel to her own journey was not lost on Hernández. “They have given me posada here.”
Trump, who launched his presidential campaign by accusing Mexicans of being drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, has made a harsh immigration crackdown the signature of his presidency. While in the first year of his administration he has actually deported fewer people than Obama did in his last — largely because of the record low number of people crossing the border — Trump has escalated anti-immigrant rhetoric, increased the number of immigration arrests by 42 percent, and disseminated terror in immigrant communities with sweeping raids that have made virtually all undocumented immigrants targets for enforcement.
The Trump administration has also gone to war against sanctuaries — explicitly focusing its enforcement efforts in those cities and states where local authorities have refused to collaborate with ICE. But while battles over the legality of sanctuary are fought in court, the sanctuary movement has grown exponentially — with colleges and universities joining cities, counties, and states in offering refuge from deportation.
The number of places of worship that have declared themselves sanctuary has doubled since Trump was elected to more than 800, according to Church World Service, a faith-based coalition providing refugee assistance worldwide. The movement includes churches of various denominations as well as synagogues, Hindu temples, and mosques. “I do believe that’s a direct result of the Trump administration targeting communities of color,” said Myrna Orozco Gallos, an organizer with the group, calling sanctuary a “prophetic and moral calling.” “This administration has definitely invited more people to stand up and really live out their calling and their faith by helping their neighbor and loving their neighbor.”
But not every church is answering the call.
A Catholic, Hernández first turned to Roman Catholic churches. But the Philadelphia archdiocese has prohibited its priests from offering sanctuary — though, Quintana noted, “many want to do it.” In New Hampshire, Catholic leaders responded to a priest’s declaration of sanctuary by also prohibiting it. In New York, the archdiocese continues to oppose sanctuary despite owning dozens of properties where it could host immigrants, including many empty ones it is now looking to sell off.
“We could be doing something with that space,” said Felix Cepeda, a New York-based Catholic activist. “We do a lot of good work towards charity and providing social services, but when it comes to the challenging the structure of injustice and the people who perpetuate injustice, we need to do more.”
The archdioceses of Philadelphia and New York did not respond to requests for comment.
The concern, in part, is legal. While ICE has so far kept away from churches, there is no guarantee they will continue to do so, and churches don’t have the legal authority to stop law enforcement coming with a legitimate warrant. Churches could also be vulnerable to anti-harboring and anti-trafficking laws. “We hope ICE will respect the way that they choose to show and practice their faith,” said Orozco Gallos. “But there’s always a risk.”
In the 1980s, Rev. John Fife, a Presbyterian minister in Tucson, Arizona, was the first clergyman in the country to offer sanctuary to refugees from Central America. As the movement quickly spread, the government sent undercover agents to infiltrate it, taping more than 90 conversations between pastors and priests on both sides of the border and even recording worship services. Fife was one of 11 people indicted in the case. “They said that this was a vast international criminal conspiracy to smuggle undocumented people across the border,” he told The Intercept. “We thought that it was a great opportunity to make our legal case, which was that the people that we were helping were refugees.”
Fife and seven others were eventually found guilty after a judge barred the defense from mentioning conditions in El Salvador and Guatemala or U.S. and international refugee law.
But the sanctuary movement continued to grow — and Fife and others eventually sued the government over its discriminatory treatment of asylum claims by Guatemalans and Salvadorans. Rather than having the attorney general and other top officials testify, the government agreed to a settlement that included putting a stop to the deportations, granting temporary protected status to refugees from those countries, and reforming the political asylum process.
While in the 1980s the sanctuary movement was focused on refugees, today’s is extended to migrant families, Fife said, but “in both cases the U.S. government was and is in violation of basic human rights and international law.”
But the tradition of sanctuary has much older roots. During the abolitionist movement, churches offered sanctuary to runaway slaves. Before that, Fife adds, “there’s a history of thousands of years of sacred sites in places of worship functioning as sanctuary.” “We didn’t come up with that idea in the 1980s. It’s biblical.”
To him, the question of sanctuary is an ethical one.
“How can we claim to be faithful at all and allow the government to deport families and children back to a place where their life is obviously in danger?” he asked. “It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with faith.”