It’s a long shot, but a shot nonetheless — a chance for Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her four children to avoid deportation to Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Philadelphia) has introduced a bill that would grant the family new immigration statuses as permanent residents, allowing them to leave the North Philadelphia Episcopal church where they took sanctuary four months ago.
“If you put yourself in my shoes for a while, you will know why we need the help of politicians. They can save five human lives,” Hernandez said in Spanish at a formal announcement of the filing Thursday morning at the Church of the Advocate, where the family lives in a basement room.
She thanked Brady and everyone who has helped her, saying, “It’s difficult being here in sanctuary, but we still have strength, me and my children.”
Brady, who is not seeking reelection, introduced what is called a “private bill,” one that affects a particular person, group of people or corporation. Generally, these bills face tough roads to passage.
Next, the congressman intends to seek signatures of at least 200 colleagues on the bill. He said that would “send a message” to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that “this family is supported by members of Congress” and by a large contingent of education, community, and immigration groups.
“I couldn’t live with myself if this mother and her four children were deported and were killed or attacked because we couldn’t find it in our hearts to offer the opportunity to live and work free of fear in the U.S.,” Brady said in a statement.
He could not attend the announcement because his presence was required in Washington for congressional votes, according to his office.
Supporters of the family said they would ask Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) to introduce a similar bill in the Senate. A spokesperson said Casey has not introduced private bills because he’s concerned they can be unfair and lead to an uneven application of the law.
In a statement, ICE officials said Hernandez was “an unlawfully present citizen of Mexico” who had been ordered to be deported in September 2016.
In the past, the statement said, when a private bill was introduced, ICE granted a stay of removal once it received a written request for an investigative report from the chair of the House or Senate Judiciary Committee or the appropriate subcommittee. Now, ICE will consider and issue a stay only if the chair of the committee or subcommittee makes a written request, independent of any request for an investigative report. Further, ICE will grant no more than one stay, limited to six months.
A dozen or more supporters gathered with Hernandez at the church on Thursday, as she and her four children entered their fifth month there.
“This is a happy day,” said Jazmin Delgado, part of the new Sanctuary Advocate Coalition that has taken over support of the family from the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. “This is Philadelphia and Pennsylvania standing up for justice.”
Among the supporters was Alma Lopez, the wife of Javier Flores Garcia, who spent a year living in sanctuary at the Arch Street United Methodist Church before being able to leave in October.
Garcia was granted “deferred action,” allowing him to live and work in the United States while awaiting approval of what is called a U visa. It covers victims of crimes who have suffered serious injury — Garcia was stabbed in a 2004 assault — and are willing to assist the government in prosecuting those responsible.
“I’m here to tell Carmela she needs to keep fighting,” Lopez said.
Hernandez, 36, says that if she and her family are deported to Mexico, they could be killed by the same gangsters who murdered her brother and two nephews. Her relatives were taxi drivers, she said, and were killed when they were unable to pay an extortion fee.
She was threatened and assaulted by the same people, she said. In August 2015, Hernandez gathered the children and fled north, approaching U.S. immigration authorities at the border in San Diego. She asked for asylum, and after three days in detention, the family was released to the care of a relative, a U.S. citizen in Pennsylvania.
The family later settled in Vineland. In December, with deportation imminent, she and her children — Edwin, 9, Yoselin, 11, Keyri, 13, and Fidel, 15 — took shelter in the Church of the Advocate.
Hernandez has challenged ICE by asserting her children’s right to a public education, sending them out of the church to attend school each day. ICE guidelines dissuade agents from taking action inside “sensitive locations” such as churches, hospitals and schools, though arrests have been made immediately outside those places.
“This is a moment of hope for freedom,” said the Rev. Renee McKenzie, vicar of the Church of the Advocate. “We know there are a lot of other families in the same situation, but Carmela Apolonio Hernandez is the one we have in front of us.”