Undocumented immigrant mother, four children claim sanctuary in North Philly church

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez an undocumented worker from Mexico, and her four children addresses media and supporters during a press conference at the Church of the Advocate on the 1800 block of W. Diamond St. in Philadelphia on Wednesday, December 13, 2017. She and her children are taking sanctuary in the church to avoid deportation.

An undocumented immigrant mother has taken refuge inside the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia with her four children, declaring sanctuary in an effort to avoid a deportation to Mexico that she says could get them killed.

It is the second time since President Trump’s election that a person or family has sought protection from immigration authorities by moving into a Philadelphia church.

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, 36, had been ordered to leave the United States by Dec. 15, following denial of the family’s petition for asylum. She spent eight days knocking on the doors of churches in South Jersey and Pennsylvania before being welcomed at the Advocate, famous for its strong stance on civil rights.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, center, and her four children, from left to right, Fidel, 15, Yoselin, 11, Edwin, 9, and Keyri, 13, in their basement living quarters at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.

“I am not hiding,” Hernandez said in Spanish, during an interview inside the church at 18th and Diamond Streets. “I am here determined to fight for my children, and build the best life I can for them, and also to fight the injustice that so many immigrants are facing.”

She asked the children — Edwin, 9, Yoselin, 11, Keyri, 13, and Fidel, 15 — if they would be willing to enter sanctuary as a means to block deportation. “They said they would go wherever I went,” Hernandez said.

On Wednesday morning, about 50 people gathered inside the church, welcoming the family in song — “Lean on Me” and “This Little Light of Mine” — and pledging faith and support. They held up signs reading, “Love is the only law,” as impromptu verses of “We Shall Not Be Moved” echoed off the walls of the gothic revival church.

“I’m here because I care,” said Mimi Copp Johnson, of Mount Airy. “It feels like there’s so much pain and suffering, and so much degradation of people’s humanity. It makes me weep.”

Hernandez thanked people for showing by their physical presence that they supported the family. She stood for interview after interview with local TV and radio reporters, facing the cameras and lights, answering every question.

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Advocates say claims of sanctuary in cities around the country aim not only to shield individuals but to challenge the U.S. immigration system.

“For undocumented people who are supposed to be invisible, exploitable labor in this country, sanctuary is an act of civil disobedience to protest the injustices of deportation and poverty,” said Sheila Quintana, a community organizer with New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an interfaith immigrant advocate that is assisting the family.

The Hernandez family came to America in August 2015, fleeing the violence of organized drug criminals who killed two of Carmela’s nephews and her brother. Her relatives were taxi drivers, she said, and were murdered when they were unable to pay an extortion fee demanded by gangsters.

She and her eldest daughter were threatened and assaulted by the same criminals, who came to their home and demanded she give over money, she said.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT/Staff Photographer
Fidel, 15, left, and his brother, Edwin, 9, watch soap operas in Spanish on a computer in their quarters at the Church of the Advocate.

Terrified, Hernandez gathered the children and fled north, approaching U.S. immigration authorities at the border in San Diego. She asked for asylum, and asserted what in legal terms is called a “well-founded fear of persecution.” 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.

Hernandez still wears the monitor that authorities locked to her ankle in California.

Is she afraid?

“A lot,” she said. Especially for her eldest son. Returning to Mexico “would be like handing him over,” she said.

She is appealing the denial of asylum. In the meantime, she and her children found shelter within the imposing stone walls of a church long known for its willingness to speak truth to power.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT/Staff Photographer
Rev. Renee McKenzie is pastor of the Church of the Advocate, where Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her family have taken sanctuary.

The Advocate was the site of the National Conference of Black Power in 1968, the Black Panther Conference in 1970, and the first ordination of women in the Episcopal Church in 1974.

Hernandez said she and her children would stay inside the  church as long as necessary. The leader of the Advocate said they were welcome to do so.

“We’re here for the long haul,” said Rev. Renee McKenzie, vicar and chaplain. “We stand in solidarity with Carmela and with people facing deportation.”

For now, the world of the Hernandez family has shrunk to a single room, formerly Classroom B in the church basement. It has fluorescent lights on the ceiling and mattresses on the tile floor. A microwave oven sits in a corner, not far from containers of Corn Pops cereal.

During an interview with The Inquirer and Daily News, 11-year-old Yoselin, who like her siblings is undocumented, sat on a hallway couch beside her mother.

How does she feel about sanctuary?

“I think I’m going to feel protected,” she said.

Will she miss her friends?

“I miss them already,” she said.

The concept of sanctuary reaches all the way back to the Bible, which identified “six cities of refuge” where “a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee.”

Runaway slaves were protected in northern churches before the Civil War, and young men avoiding the draft sometimes sought refuge during the Vietnam era. A wider sanctuary movement bloomed in the 1980s when hundreds of churches and synagogues took in Central American refugees.

More recently, undocumented immigrants have sought sanctuary in Chicago, Denver, Texas and Arizona, as well as in Philadelphia.

In late 2014 and early 2015, Honduran mother Angela Navarro spent 58 days inside a West Kensington church before winning a reprieve from deportation. In October of this year, Javier Flores Garcia left the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City after almost a year inside, having been granted “deferred action” that allows him to live  in the U.S. while awaiting approval of a visa.

Garcia moved into the church shortly after the November elections, fearing that a crackdown on undocumented immigrants would lead to his separation from his family and deportation to Mexico.

Immigration-enforcement agents generally avoid attempting to make arrests in churches, hospitals and schools. Like others who claim sanctuary, members of the Hernandez family could be detained if they stepped outside the church.

“Taking sanctuary may sound easy to people, but it’s very hard and it requires a lot of strength,” Hernandez said. “Right now I have that strength.”