Last week, 33-year-old Amanda Morales Guerra sought sanctuary from federal immigration agents in a Washington Heights church with her three young children. "I am scared, but at the same time I feel safe here," she told reporters at Holyrood Episcopal on West 179th Street, her home for the foreseeable future.
"What I want is to stay in this country with my children so they are not left alone, helpless," she added.
Rather than attend a scheduled check-in with Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents on August 17th with a one-way ticket to Guatemala in hand, Guerra, who has lived in the United States since the early 2000s, chose to take advantage of a discretionary federal policy. Churches, mosques and synagogues qualify as "sensitive locations," which ICE is directed to "generally" avoid, along with schools and hospitals.
Guerra has no criminal record. She was first apprehended by Border Patrol in Falcon Heights, Texas in March 2004. She was released on her own recognizance, and issued a final order of removal that July. Guerra landed back on ICE's radar in October 2012, according to her lawyer, when a car she was riding in was involved in a crash. She provided police with her Guatemalan passport, her only ID. ICE then ordered her to "finalize travel arrangements."
In the days since Guerra moved into Holyrood this month, Upper West Side residents and community groups have brought food and beds, and entertained the family with activities including music lessons, according to local City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez's office. And on Monday afternoon, locals rallied at the church and outside ICE offices in Foley Square while attorney Geoff Kagan Trenchard filed a petition for Guerra to stay in the U.S. for at least the next year.
Trenchard is also preparing a longer-term asylum bid for Guerra: a protection sought by immigrants who face imminent danger in their countries of origin. Trenchard declined to elaborate, citing client confidentiality, but said Guerra "has a case that clearly indicates that she has been personally targeted and there is a very real danger if she returns." The New York Times reports that Guerra fled threats of violence from a military group that sought to recruit her brother.
ICE says it will respond to the Monday petition within 90 days. "We have received a stay request and it's under review," ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls told Gothamist.
"Guerra was supposed to report to ICE, but she did not report as required," Walls added. "She is now considered an ICE fugitive."
With Amanda Morales-Guerra at Holy Rood church where she has taken refuge, under pursuit from Trump's ICE officers. pic.twitter.com/BIcLBMn056
— Ydanis Rodriguez (@ydanis) August 18, 2017
Guerra reportedly lived in Massapequa with her partner, brother, sister and three American-born children before seeking sanctuary in Manhattan (the NY Times reports that her children, who face no ICE threat, will return there for school this fall).
She is the first New Yorker to publicly announce her physical sanctuary bid, according to Juan Carlos Ruiz, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC and a Lutheran minister at St. Peter's in Manhattan.
"I think Amanda has taken a leap of faith and basically is giving face to a nameless phenomenon," he told Gothamist Tuesday.
As President Donald Trump's immigration policy continues to calcify, immigrant communities have watched emboldened ICE agents make good on his xenophobic campaign promises. Nationally, ICE arrests jumped nearly 40 percent between January and April: 41,318 people, up from 30,028 people between January 24th and April 30th, 2016. More than 400 people were arrested daily during that time frame, according to ICE. Of the total arrested, more than 25 percent have no criminal record. Last year, about 14 percent of arrested individuals had no criminal record between January and April.
In New York State, arrests are also trending up. Overall arrests between January 24th and April 30th increased about 31 percent, from 523 to 687. Within that group, non-criminal arrests more than doubled, from 77 to 156.
"Once you label a person a threat to society, all of this money, weapons, policing, you name it, gets unleashed on these [immigrant] communities," Ruiz said. "Amanda told me the other day, 'I am not doing this only for myself. I know mothers and fathers who have the same fear. Who are facing deportation but don't know what to do with our anguish and uncertainty.'"
Reverend Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church told the NY Times in December that there were 11 immigrants in sanctuary in NYC churches, most of whom had committed non-violent "white-collar" crimes, such as identity theft. In February, according to DNAInfo, at least 14 congregations in NYC were providing sanctuary.
"It's not something that we take lightly," Ruiz said, acknowledging the prison-like conditions of physical sanctuary. "It has to be really considered. But in our faith tradition its the role of our churches to denounce and speak up."
"To go public with a sanctuary story is always a very personal choice," added Camille Mackler, Director of Immigration Legal Policy at the New York Immigration Coalition. "I think it's important to illustrate who is getting caught in this net, this enforcement net."
"For every sympathetic story you hear, there are tens if not hundreds that you don't," she added. "Because people are afraid of repercussions to themselves, and to their families."