Updated: Thursday, January 15, 2015, 11:09 AM
Angela Navarro, the Honduran mother who in November took sanctuary in a West Kensington church, challenging immigration authorities to remove her, has won a reprieve from deportation.
"I am so happy. I still can't believe it," she said Thursday.
She praised God, her family, and friends, who along with clergy and some elected officials in Philadelphia supported her campaign of open defiance against an immigration court's decade-old order to expel her.
In a fax to Navarro's lawyer, Patricia Camuzzi Luber, the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Philadelphia cited "prosecutorial discretion" in halting the deportation for at least two years.
The decision marked a victory for a nationwide sanctuary movement, and, some activists hope, a softening of the government's stance against some undocumented immigrants.
After getting the news, Navarro went to pick up her kids at school for the first time in 58 days.
Navarro was 16 when she entered the United States illegally from Mexico in 2003. Arrested immediately, she was sent to live with her parents in Philadelphia. They had permission to live here under Temporary Protected Status after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998. Navarro's son, Arturo, was born in 2004.
At a court hearing that year, she agreed to take "voluntary departure," which meant she would leave on her own and not be formally deported, preserving some rights if she wanted to return in the future.
But she just wouldn't go, and that turned the voluntary departure into a formal deportation.
Apprehensive but resilient, she got on with her life. In 2006, her daughter, Angela Mariana, was born.
In a November interview at West Kensington Ministry, the Norris Square church where she took refuge, Navarro said she lived in constant fear that she would be arrested and expelled.
Because of the poverty and violence in her native country, she said, she would have felt compelled to leave her children behind, "and I didn't want to be separated from my family."
Navarro, who is married to a U.S. citizen, received public support and letters from U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Phila.), 11 members of Philadelphia City Council, and State Sen. Christine Tartaglione.
"She has been a productive, law-abiding resident of Philadelphia and deserves to continue to contribute to our city and our country," Brady said Thursday. "I'm overjoyed."
While living at the church, Navarro received 200 letters from clergy and 6,100 signatures on a petition supporting her campaign, led by the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
ICE spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell said "a comprehensive review" of Navarro's case led to the decision, which she said was in keeping with ICE's priorities. Enforcement efforts, she said, "are focused on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members, and illegal entrants apprehended at the border."
Navarro is among nine people nationwide who moved into churches last year to avoid arrest while hoping for relief from deportation. In May, an undocumented man in Tucson, Ariz., was one of the first when he moved into Southside Presbyterian Church. A month later, ICE granted him a one-year reprieve. Immigrants in other high-profile cases have sought refuge in churches in Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and other cities. Navarro's supporters said she is the first on the East Coast.
The stay of removal allows her to work legally while pursuing an appeal that could reopen her deportation case. The stay requires her to report periodically for supervision by federal officials. In November, she gave up her apartment and job as a cook to enter the church, where she has lived with her children and husband in a converted storage area.
The family plans to remain at the church while seeking a new apartment.
Supporters plan to gather at the church at 11 a.m. Saturday for a ceremony to mark the end of her sanctuary.
Read full story: Immigrant wins reprieve, ends sanctuary in Phila. church