Carmela Apolonio Hernández wanted to ask former Vice President Joe Biden a question at the voters' town hall Thursday night in Philadelphia, but getting a seat in the audience would be impossible. She has been behind church walls in sanctuary for nearly three years, to avoid deportation to Mexico.
So she held her own small, virtual town-hall gathering to ask him: If elected, will he commit to freeing the families living in sanctuary around the country?
Some 40 undocumented immigrants are living in churches in 16 states, including a second family in Philadelphia, all seeking to forestall removal to homelands where they say they could be hurt or killed.
“As a mother, I ask him to commit to helping us leave sanctuary, to helping us breathe fresh air, to walk out of these doors without the fear of ICE officers waiting for us outside,” Hernandez said from the Germantown Mennonite Church on Thursday afternoon. “You have no idea how difficult it is to live inside of a church, between these four walls. I know this is a sacred place, that God is here … but I also need fresh air and oxygen.”
Biden will hold a prime-time town hall at the National Constitution Center, to be aired on ABC, at the same time that President Trump will host his own question-and-answer session with voters in Miami, to be carried by NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC. The two were supposed to meet for their second debate on Thursday.
She does not know how, or even if, her question will reach Biden. His campaign did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Hernandez' plea.
During the Thursday afternoon event, billed as “Carmela’s Town Hall: Dear Vice President Biden,” Hernandez was supported by New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia and the Free Migration Project, the latter led by her lawyer, David Bennion.
She is a core member of the National Sanctuary Collective, which joins families and individuals living in sanctuary across the country. The collective wants Biden to:
— Commit to granting immediate legal protection to each person in sanctuary on his first day in office.
— Lift the deportation orders against those in sanctuary within his first 100 days as president.
— Sign into law any bills granting relief to specific people in sanctuary.
Hernandez, 39, and her eldest children — teenagers Fidel, Keyri, and Yoselin — suffered severe COVID-19 symptoms in early summer and continue their recovery inside the church. The youngest child, Edwin, 11, did not become ill.
“We’re weaker than we used to be,” Hernandez said on Thursday.
The Hernandezes have spent more time in sanctuary than any of the four families to seek refuge in Philadelphia churches in recent times, and their freedom has become the cause of immigration and church activists.
The family fled to this country from Mexico in August 2015, after being threatened by the same drug criminals who had killed Hernandez’s brother and two nephews. They were denied asylum, and took sanctuary only days before their Dec. 15, 2017 deportation date.
Years of vigils, marches, rallies, political outreach, and public pleas have not moved the federal government to grant them permission to stay in the U.S.. Churches are considered safe because Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines dissuade agents from making arrests at designated “sensitive locations,” such as houses of worship, schools, and hospitals.
Hernandez said if Biden loses the election, she is willing to endure what could be another four years in sanctuary in order to protect the lives of her children.
“The community of Philadelphia is fighting for our freedom, and now we want to ask Joe Biden to fight for our freedom,” she said. “When Joe Biden speaks, he says very beautiful things about helping immigrants. I only hope he actually does what he says."