Editor’s Note: Anna Lekas Miller is a journalist covering refugee and immigration issues and is the editor in chief of the Media Diversity Institute website. She is working on her first book, “Love in Times of Borders,” a collection of refugee and immigrant love stories. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On the morning of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Vicky Chávez said she jolted out of bed and turned on the television in the upstairs room of the Unitarian church she calls home.
“Look, we’ve finally got a (new) president now,” the Honduran mother of two said, squeezing her three-year-old daughter as they watched Biden put his hand on the Bible and take the oath of office.
“Does this mean we can go to Disneyland?” her daughter asked, hopefully.
“Not yet,” Chávez said, stroking her hair and holding her close. “But hopefully soon.”
Over the past three years, Chávez hasn’t been able to take her daughters to Disneyland – or anywhere else, for that matter – because they have been living in the confines of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. When she lost her last appeal to stay in the country, after an immigration judge rejected her asylum claim and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued her a deportation order, the church offered her a temporary haven. All Chávez had to do was show up, and she and her daughters could stay for as long as they needed.
“All of my family is here in the United States,” Chávez told me, describing her decision to accept the church’s offer of sanctuary, a practice that dates back to the 1980s when congregations across the country offered refuge to Central American refugees in protest of the Reagan administration’s crackdown on asylum seekers.
More recently, ICE has categorized churches – along with hospitals, schools and other places of worship – as “sensitive locations” where enforcement officers need prior authorization to conduct raids and arrests. For this reason, a handful of churches across the country have been able to open their doors to shelter immigrants and asylum seekers who are facing deportation orders.
While Biden’s proposed comprehensive immigration reform for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States could mean an end to the need for these kinds of practices in the future, until now, sanctuary has been one of the only options for people like Chávez who have run out of alternatives and fear violence or persecution in their home country.
If Biden really wants to send a message to asylum-seekers that his administration is the new beginning that he promised, he should also grant those living in sanctuary the protection they need to leave church safely, and ensure that they will be able to stay in the country until they are on a viable path to citizenship.
Living in sanctuary
“I couldn’t take my girls back to Honduras,” Chávez explains to me, alluding to the fact that the country is known for being one of the most dangerous in the world due to gang violence, and that women and girls are particularly targeted. “I knew that I had to stay and fight.”
And since the day that she moved to the church, fight she has. Chávez has been speaking out – first to local media outlets, then as part of the National Sanctuary Collective, a network of immigrants churches across the country and their faith-based allies, dedicated to raising the voices of those who have sought sanctuary. The network estimates that there are around 50 immigrants living in sanctuary at this time.
“Some of those in sanctuary have stories in the US that go back for decades,” David Bennion, an immigration attorney who represents some of the immigrants in sanctuary and the director of the Free Migration Project, told me. “There are others who came more recently to seek asylum and had their cases wrongly denied.”
While a handful of people sought sanctuary under the Obama administration, many of those currently living in sanctuary say they sought protection in response to the Trump administration expanding deportation priorities, essentially criminalizing all undocumented immigrants, even if they had never had an encounter with law enforcement.
“It got much worse under Trump,” NYU clinical law professor and co-director of the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic Alina Das told me, explaining that these policy changes saw many who wouldn’t have been flagged under previous administrations suddenly targeted for deportation.
Living in sanctuary means never leaving the church grounds, even for a short walk or a breath of fresh air. While some have drawn the natural parallels between living in sanctuary and sheltering from the coronavirus, immigrants in sanctuary cannot receive stimulus checks and are nervous that they might not be able to access the vaccine. Instead, they depend on the church community for all of their needs – a difficult dynamic that has gotten even more challenging during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, speaking out about her case and the cases of others in sanctuary has come at a cost. At one point, ICE slapped Chávez and several other outspoken members of the National Sanctuary Collective with civil fines close to half a million dollars each. While ICE has since rescinded the initial fine, Chávez is still facing a smaller, but significant fine of approximately $60,000 and is fighting to have it dropped.
Still, Chávez does her best to keep her spirits up, playing with her kids and making arts and crafts – she even recently crocheted the Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders meme into a doll. But the extended time indoors and in limbo weighs on her, particularly as she watches her daughters grow up not knowing what the future holds.
“My oldest daughter is starting to ask questions,” she says, mentioning that ever since she started online school, her 9-year-old is wondering why their family lives in a church, and whether or not she should tell her friends about where her family lives.
“Meanwhile for my youngest, her entire world is me and this church,” she continued, mentioning that she was only 5 months old when they sought sanctuary three years ago. “I don’t know what is going to happen when I bring her to preschool and she meets other kids for the first time.”
Yet, Chávez is cautiously optimistic that the day could come soon.
What Biden can do
Biden has already shown that he is eager to turn over a new leaf on Trump’s draconian immigration and asylum policies, and even quickly delivered on campaign promises like scrapping the travel ban that targeted predominantly Muslim countries, creating a task force to reunite families separated at the border and putting a 100-day moratorium on deportations within his first days in office
However, just a few days after Biden’s inauguration, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration, prompting a federal judge to temporarily block the moratorium, and once again putting undocumented immigrants’ lives in the crosshairs of a familiar game of cat and mouse.
For immigration advocates like Das, the lawsuit shows how easy it is to overturn these protections, and how vulnerable those in sanctuary still are, even under the new administration.
“There will always be anti-immigrant forces at work trying to delay some of the more humanitarian actions that the Biden administration is taking,” she continued, explaining that one of the best ways to protect those living in sanctuary would be to individually review their cases. “Nothing can stop the Biden administration from exercising discretion in individual cases and granting stays of removal to allow people to live a more safe and secure life.”
While President Biden’s multiple executive orders addressing immigration policy are a promising start, and his comprehensive immigration reform will almost certainly help undocumented immigrants in the long run, he has yet to address the fact that people like Chávez have been traumatized by the previous administration’s policies – and that living in a church is not a sustainable solution, even in the short term. By giving these cases individual attention, he can ensure that those living in sanctuary are finally able to walk free and pursue a legal path to citizenship.
For Chávez, Biden’s attention to her unique plight would go a long way in closing the chapter on Trump’s legacy of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy. “We have so much to give this country,” Chávez continued, smiling. “I can’t wait until we can all walk free.”