With Sanctuary 2014, the church, if not the law, is on immigrants' side

by @bwallace November 19, 2014 8:00PM ET

Angela Navarro is the eighth person this year who has attempted to avoid deportation by taking refuge in a church

Angela Navarro, left, leads her daughter, Angela Mendoza, 8, right, into the West Kensington Ministry Church on Nov. 18, 2014, as her term of sanctuary begins.
Al Jazeera America

PHILADELPHIA — Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had become a familiar sight at the North Philadelphia home Angela Navarro shared with her parents. “It was like it was their house, they were there so much,” she remembers, laughing a bit. She’s lost track of how many times ICE officials showed up at the home. “They were looking for a brother-in-law that was living there, and they may have been looking for me, too.”

Navarro, a native of Honduras, was caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2003. She was 17 at the time, so she was allowed to remain in the country with her parents, who were already living in Philadelphia, while her case played out. Ultimately, the judge ordered her to leave the country. She didn’t, so a deportation order has been in place against her for 10 years. In recent years her family has changed homes regularly, trying to stay a step ahead of ICE.

On Monday, Navarro made what she hopes will be the last of those moves. Along with her husband, son and daughter — all U.S. citizens — she moved into the West Kensington Ministry, a stately, weathered brick church in North Philadelphia. A day later, she made it official, speaking to reporters at an event announcing her move.

Father John Olenick, of the Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary Church, places a rosary around Navarro’s neck.
Al Jazeera America

It’s the latest episode in what organizers are calling Sanctuary 2014. The first came in May, when Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, an undocumented man living in Tucson, moved into the Southside Presbyterian Church there. (Southside has a special place in sanctuary history: The original movement of the 1980s, when a network of U.S. churches harbored immigrants fleeing bloody civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, started there.)

Ruiz was facing a deportation order and moved into the church in part to avoid capture. He was also hoping the public attention would pressure ICE to give a serious look at an appeal his lawyers filed. The idea worked: A month later, ICE gave him a one-year reprieve. Since then, seven more people with similar goals have moved into churches — three more in Arizona and one each in Denver; Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and, now, Philadelphia.

Navarro is overcome with emotion upon seeing her family members arrive at the West Kensington Ministry Church, on the day she sought sanctuary.
Al Jazeera America
Navarro’s husband, Ermer Fernandez, fought through the throng of supporters to hug her after she entered the church.
Al Jazeera America

Angela Navarro was hesitant when the idea of moving to West Kensington Ministry was first suggested to her. Late on Monday afternoon, sitting on a couch in the small room the church had prepared for her family, she remembered, “When my mom first told me about this I thought, ‘No,’ because I didn’t know how I could leave my house and my work.” Her husband was in favor of it, though, and the Thai restaurant where she worked as a cook said she could have her job back once she was able to leave the church. And, of course, the specter of deportation was weighing on her.

“Everything you have to do with kids — going to a hospital, going to school, when you have to represent them — every time I have to write my name, I have all this stress. Should I write it? Should I not? Because maybe ICE will come,” Navarro said quietly, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter and nervously twisting a silver ring around her finger as she talked. The thought of being separated from her family was awful, she said, and a future back in Honduras, which has the highest homicide rate in the world, was scary.

Workers moved past, racing to connect plumbing in the bathroom in her new home. Soon her husband and children walked in. “It has gotten to the point that I’m afraid of going to visit my mom, because that’s where ICE is,” Navarro said.

Navarro’s daughter, Angela, makes her way through the room she and her brother will share at the church.
Al Jazeera America

The success of these sanctuary actions hinges on ICE’s reticence to remove people from a church. The agency has a policy of not following people into what it calls sensitive areas — schools, hospitals and places of worship among them — unless the individual represents an immediate threat or local agents get approval from immigration officials in Washington. ICE hasn’t pursued any of the sanctuary-seekers yet, although a man living in a Portland church was taken into custody for a day earlier this month when he left the building to appear at a court date. (ICE officials in Philadelphia declined to comment on Navarro’s case for this article.)

President Obama is expected on Thursday evening to issue new orders about several aspects of federal immigration policy. The specifics of his actions are unknown. “Everyone’s doing a lot of guesswork right now,” said Sarah Launius, a lawyer and one of the organizers of the sanctuary effort in Tucson.

There are indications that the administration could put deportations of undocumented people on hold if they meet certain criteria: if they’ve been in the country for a designated length of time, if they have children who are U.S. citizens, if they don’t have serious criminal violations. Angela Navarro checks all these boxes, but her case may be complicated by her final deportation order. And Launius points out that many people don’t meet these criteria, so she doesn’t think the sanctuary movement will stop anytime soon. “I do think that, barring a miracle, it will continue to be needed,” she said.

With her family standing behind her, Navarro addresses the crowd of supporters in front of the West Kensington Ministry Church.
Al Jazeera America

The crowd gathered on the front steps of West Kensington Ministry Tuesday morning wasn’t waiting for a miracle. As TV cameramen jostled for location and an organizer ran through the event’s choreography, supporters sang the protest song “We Shall Not Be Moved” with Spanish verses. They ran through the words printed on a handout, then started improvising new ones. “Until Obama hears us,” someone called out. “We shall not be moved,” the crowd answered.

The night before, however, speaking in the quiet of the church chapel, Navarro said she was eager to get down to work on her legal appeal. Since she can’t leave the church, she’ll be focused on her legal challenge and on teaching herself to play guitar. She was nervous about having become a public face in the immigration debate but hoped her gamble would pay off soon. “I want ICE to stop my deportation order, because I’m tired of living in fear.”

Navarro’s son, Arturo Mendoza, 11, looks out of the front door of the church.
Al Jazeera America