Washington Heights church becomes a sanctuary as immigration enforcement ramps up

A Guatemalan woman is seeking sanctuary in a Washington Heights church to avoid deportation. She had been living in the United States without authorization since 2004, but entered the church last week instead of reporting for an appointment with ICE.
A Guatemalan woman is seeking sanctuary in a Washington Heights church to avoid deportation. She had been living in the United States without authorization since 2004, but entered the church last week instead of reporting for an appointment with ICE. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Mladen Antonov

The woman emerged just after noon on Monday from what used to be the library at Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz. She walked quickly past rows of empty pews toward the Washington Heights church’s main entrance, heavy wooden doors hiding sun and a view of the George Washington Bridge. TV cameras had watched her pray despondently at the altar earlier; now they were gone, and she smiled shyly at a few parishioners, mood perhaps lightening with more motion. But Amanda Morales-Guerra, 33, can no longer move far: threatened with deportation, she and her three children have sought sanctuary within Holyrood’s walls.

She came to the U.S. in 2004 fleeing the threat of deadly violence to her family in her native Guatemala. She was arrested in Texas soon after arriving and issued a final order of removal. But she was able to remain, checking in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement periodically, because she was not a priority case during a more lenient immigration era that often focused on deporting serious criminals rather than those who tried to follow the ever-changing rules. She followed her siblings to Long Island and built a life, giving birth to three kids, all U.S. citizens.

But her immigration status remained precarious.

Earlier this summer, ICE told her she had to buy a ticket to go back to Guatemala. Instead, she and her kids took up residence in the church.

Rebuilding a life in a church

Morales-Guerra is supported by individuals eager to put themselves at her service. They include politicians like Rep. Adriano Espaillat and City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who have called for her case to be re-opened by federal authorities. The New Sanctuary Coalition, a clergy group providing refuge to immigration fugitives, helped arrange the family’s stay in Holyrood.

But there are also the parishioners and community members who have taken the children out to nearby parks, or brought food, clothes, coloring books and toys beyond the Mickey Mouse stuffed animal the youngest brought with him. Yvonne Stennett, director of the Community League of the Heights, ran down the church’s stone steps Monday afternoon in search of a DVD player and movies: “not much reception” for the donated TV in the little library, now a bedroom, she said.

Parishioner Carlos Arias, 60, was running in the other direction, looking to fix the clogged toilet the family had been using. He said he was one of the handymen who helped get their room ready, putting in air conditioning and painting the walls. Arias is an immigrant himself; a lawyer he met through the church is helping him toward a green card.

Brother Anthony Zuba, 39, a Capuchin friar in brown robes, came from a nearby church and found a moment alone with Morales-Guerra while others were bustling around. Zuba held her hands and offered what he could in halting Spanish: prayer matched with financial and material assistance.

After, he bemoaned Morales-Guerra’s predicament. Hadn’t she made the obvious choice coming to the U.S., despite immigration law? “What would you do?” he asked.

The reality we live with

It is now clear what President Donald Trump’s administration does to those like Morales-Guerra. His record: an early 40 percent increase in arrests of people in the country illegally, compared to the same period the year before. Many of those are people without criminal convictions. And the routine check-ins with ICE that people like Morales-Guerra have done for years are no longer routine.

According to Camille Mackler, director of legal initiatives at the advocacy group New York Immigration Coalition, immigration lawyers and advocates met with the man responsible for immigration enforcement and removal in New York, field office director Thomas Decker, in the spring. Decker said individuals who have been doing their routine check-ins with ICE for years could be subject to removal, barring a clear responsibility to care for someone (an ill relative, for example) or the possibility their immigration status could soon change. An ICE spokesman corroborated that summary of Decker’s remarks.

In practice, that means that throughout Trump’s stumble from outrageous comment to outrageous comment, the real-world effects of his presidency are increased vulnerability for immigrants here illegally, including 33-year-old mothers with three American kids.

Others have been deported from New York despite elected officials’ protests. Thus Morales-Guerra’s flight to Holyrood, hoping ICE protocol will prevent agents from coming within.

But this temporary safety means new confinement. Monday afternoon she made that brisk walk the length of the church from her humble quarters to the church entrance. Others had been passing through all morning, in both directions, to aid her or carry on church business. But just before the doors she turned left to a small chapel area, as far as she could go. A weekday mass was starting. She took a seat in the front row with a handful of parishioners, and the service began.