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We Spoke to Immigrants Who Are Hiding in US Churches to Avoid Being Deported

Central American migrants like Hilda Ramirez are finding sanctuary in a network of churches that have offered to house migrants since the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement began a series of controversial raids in January.
Hilda Ramírez en la iglesia de St Andrew en Austin, donde se ha escondido para evitar ser deportada. (Imagen por Meredith Hoffman)

This week Hilda Ramirez and her nine-year-old son moved into a Texas church, where, for now, they are confined indefinitely. If they leave, US immigration agents could instantly deport them. But Ramirez feels grateful, even "happy" — here they can finally rest.

"Here in this sanctuary I feel calmer, because I know they're not going to deport me, not going to enter," Ramirez, a tiny soft-spoken woman, said in Spanish before the altar at Austin's St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Tuesday. "Where I was living before I couldn't sleep, I'd wake up in the middle of the night thinking I heard a car coming to take us away."


Ramirez scrambled for sanctuary after US officials rounded up 121 Central American moms and kids for deportation last month. Ramirez, who had been living in a refugee shelter in Austin, panicked when she heard of the raids — she, like the women targeted, had sought asylum in the states but lost her court case.

Related: The Los Angeles Unified School District Has Banned Immigration Raids on Its Campuses

"I came here for sanctuary because I saw that the raids were picking people up who came here in 2014 like I did," said Ramirez, an indigenous Guatemalan who fled attacks and discrimination in the summer of 2014. US Immigration Customs and Enforcement detained her and her son at Karnes Residential Center in South Texas for 11 months, made Ramirez wear an ankle monitor tracking her location, and then ordered the family deported.

"I was so afraid they would send us back," said Ramirez, eyes welling up with tears. "I entered the US because I couldn't handle the violence in my country anymore. I never thought I'd be in detention for 11 months or have an ankle monitor on my foot. It's very sad for me that they've treated me like a criminal… I'm so grateful this church has taken me in."

St. Andrews Church is part of a national church network that has offered to house Central American migrants since ICE's controversial January raids. US immigration policy prevents agents from entering houses of worship, except when individuals pose a security risk, so the congregations can effectively block deportations by offering sanctuary.


Pastors and members of St. Andrew's Church gathered Tuesday to express support for Hilda Ramirez's sanctuary. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman). 

"The network idea is that each church and synagogue sets aside a room to make sanctuary possible," Jim Rigby, Pastor of St. Andrew's, said. St. Andrew's is the first to publicly bring in a mother and child, but Rigby said about 300 congregations are currently part of the network offering help.

Religious leaders have promised sanctuary because they adamantly oppose ICE's recent enforcement tactics on Central American families. ICE, which conducted the raids to stymy a record influx of women and kids from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, claimed that all individuals rounded up had exhausted all legal options to remain in the US. But days after the raids, the government granted stays of deportation for several families, admitting they may still qualify for asylum. And just this week, ICE released eight of those families from detention as they wait for their cases to be heard.

Related: US Admits Some Families It Rounded Up for Deportation Could Qualify for Asylum

"All these raids have done is terrorize communities, by going after the most vulnerable people," immigration attorney Laura Lichter, who represents some of the families, said. "ICE's narrative was these immigrants are out of legal options, that they have to go. It's taken five weeks for the government to concede that there is jurisdiction for these appeals… and that these people should be released."

Immigration advocates and now a large group of pastors, maintain that the individuals are refugees who flee wa-like gang violence, rape, and oppression.


"A sanctuary is not just a fancy room with velvet pews and stained glass windows. A sanctuary is a place where God's love is a living reality," Rigby said in his church Tuesday. "Our faith demands that we treat refugees as neighbors. Our faith demands that we open our doors even when others are shutting theirs."

That violence, Rigby emphasized, results from past US intervention in the Northern Triangle countries. In Guatemala the CIA helped replace the democratic government with a dictator back in the 1950's, and "plunged that nation into decades of violence and political oppression," he noted.

"Can we listen to Hilda's painful story of the violence in her nation and not take responsibility for our nation's role in producing the violence from which she is fleeing?" Rigby challenged congregants and reporters in the pews at a press conference Tuesday. "It's insane not to open up immigration from places where we've destroyed."

An ICE spokesman did not immediately return emails and phone calls requesting comment on Ramirez's case or on the raids.

The establishment of the church sanctuary network — which is particularly strong in Austin and in Los Angeles — follows the momentum of a recent action called Sanctuary2014, which also shielded immigrants from deportation, and it follows the example of the massive Sanctuary Movement of the 1980's, which protected mainly Central American arrivals. The purpose is to protect immigrants as they fight to reopen their court cases to remain in the US.


Related: US Immigration Agents Are Rounding Up Central American Families to Deport Them

Just last year another Austin church held a lesbian Guatemalan woman for months, until ICE granted her a stay of deportation. The congregation, First Unitarian Universalist Church, is now serving as an example for St. Andrew's.

"We leapt not knowing what we'd get into," Reverend Meg Barnhouse, First Unitarian Universalist Church's pastor, recalled. "Now we're honored to stand with this coalition of churches. We stand here because we cannot do otherwise."

Since the woman who took sanctuary, Sulma Franco, successfully won permission to remain in the US, Ramirez found hope that her own case might change by entering St. Andrew's.

"Sulma told me that the only way to stop from being deported was by taking sanctuary. I thought, 'I can't live with this fear, I have to go into a church,'" Ramirez reflected. "I hope they stop my deportation and allow my son to have a good future here."