On the day before Thanksgiving, Carmela Hernandez didn’t eat.
She only had water.
She’ll do the same on every future Wednesday, she said, undertaking a fast she hopes will allow her family to end almost two years in church sanctuary in Philadelphia and to finally live in the United States without fear of deportation.
On the steps of Germantown Mennonite Church, Hernandez on Wednesday tearfully marked the near-two-year anniversary of her confinement, surrounded by clergy and members of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an advocacy group for immigrants.
Together they prayed, lit candles, and promised to work for Hernandez and her four children.
“Emotionally, I feel strong and motivated, that’s why I’m taking the action of fasting, to continue my fight,” Hernandez said. “I’m committed until the end.”
Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offered no comment.
Two years ago this week, Hernandez was knocking on the doors of churches, begging for protection. ICE guidelines dissuade agents from interviewing, searching or arresting immigrants at designated “sensitive locations,” such as churches, schools, and hospitals.
The family spent about a year inside the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia before moving to the Mennonite church.
Hernandez, 38, says being forced back to Mexico could get her family killed by the gangsters who murdered her brother and two nephews. She and her children — Edwin, 11; Yoselin, 14; Keyri, 15; and Fidel, 17 — were ordered deported after their petition for asylum was denied.
The children have been able to attend public schools, ferried door to door by friends and supporters. Hernandez’s only known time outside a church was on a day in 2018 when she traveled to seek answers from Sen. Bob Casey at his Center City office.
No one expects a one-day-a-week fast to produce an end to the ongoing drama, Hernandez and her supporters said. The hope is she will be joined each Wednesday by people across the Philadelphia region, who will then phone their elected leaders to demand that those officials contact ICE and other immigration agencies on behalf of the family.
Church associate pastor John Bergen pledged that he would join what he called “a fast of solidarity, a fast of connection.” The New Sanctuary Movement staff will participate — and alert its 30 member churches to take part.
On Wednesday, Hernandez said her fasting could grow to more than one day a week, depending on events. In Ohio, Edith Espinal, an undocumented Mexican migrant who has spent two years in church sanctuary, has undertaken a hunger strike. As of Wednesday Espinal had gone more than four days without food.
“These are really difficult days for me,” Hernandez told a dozen backers on the church steps in Philadelphia. “That’s no reason to give up. I will continue to fight for my family.”