A year ago, Vicky Chavez and her two young daughters were bracing to return to her native Honduras, a country she fled to escape an abusive relationship and death threats.
Chavez asked for asylum in 2014, but immigration officials denied her request, and an immigration judge ordered her deported. But when the time came to turn herself into U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) last year, Chavez decided to keep fighting and stay in Salt Lake City’s sanctuary church, the First Unitarian Church.
Today marks one year since Chavez and her girls sought sanctuary there. First Unitarian Church is hosting a vigil tonight to commemorate Chavez’s stay there.
“All she wants is safety for her children and a better life for her children – the safety to live the life that she dreams about,” said the Rev. Monica Dobbins.
Chavez, who was not available for an interview, is one of 46 people nationwide currently evading deportation by finding sanctuary in churches, according to Jennie Belle of Church World Service, a global faith-based nonprofit. A majority of those people are in Pennsylvania churches. And under the Trump administration, that number is expected to grow.
Sanctuary churches are any churches that take actions that help protect immigrants from deportation or detention, Belle, a community organizer with Church World Service, said. That could be anything from helping respond to immigration raids to accompany people to immigration courts to hosting an immigrant.
Some immigrants are also remaining in sanctuary longer. One man in Phoenix and two men in Chicago are approaching their third years in sanctuary, Belle said.
For those who have lived in the United States for years, the only hope they see if remaining in sanctuary rather than face deportation. For Belle, the sanctuary movement is a reflection of the country's broken immigration system.
“They’ve been going to check in with ICE, they’ve been getting saved [from deportation], and then they go back and they are told, ‘No, they are going to be deported,’” she said.
A movement begins
The modern sanctuary movement has existed for decades, starting in the 1980s when churches sheltered immigrants fleeing from wars in Central America.
The movement sprang up again in 2008 when Barack Obama was president, Belle, said.
The Obama administration ordered 3,000,000 removals of immigrants, more than the Clinton and Bush administrations combined, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
First Unitarian Church decided to join in the movement in 2009, Dobbins said. It later made the decision to host a family.
“When it’s something really momentous like this we bring it to the congregation and take a vote and they voted unanimously that they wanted to provide a home for Vicky,” Dobbins said.
And then President Donald Trump took office, pledging to uphold his campaign promise on cracking down illegal immigration.
Under his administration, the Department of Homeland Security announced the termination of temporary protection status, or TPS, for immigrants from countries such as Sudan, Haiti and El Salvador. The future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects young immigrants from deportation, is also unknown, as the administration said it would end the program, a move that is facing legal challenges now.
“With the ending of TPS and other things that were legal routes for people to be able to stay in this country, there are more people who are at risk for deportation and depending on what happens with (DACA), I think we will see possibly even a greater need” for sanctuary churches, Belle said.
Chavez and the others are safe for now because of an ICE memorandum which states that the agency will not conduct enforcement actions at sensitive locations like schools, health care facilities and place of worship.
“But it’s just a memorandum, it’s not like a law,” Belle said. “So that is something that could be rescinded if the sanctuary movement continues to grow.”
A lot has changed for the Chavez family in this year, Dobbins said. Chavez’s youngest daughter, 1-year-old Bella, learned to take her first steps in the church. Yaretzi, 7, has become less shy and more social, Dobbins said. All three of them have become part of the church family.
Regardless, Dobbins says, this day comes with a lot of sadness for Chavez.
“There’s a lot of grief that comes with being away from your home and your community for a whole year and having everything in limbo,” Dobbins said. “It must take an enormous amount of energy to live in that space, that not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Chavez is hoping that the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will agree to reopen her asylum case, Dobbins said, but until that day comes, the family will likely stay where they are.