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Churches protected dozens of families under Trump. Now that they’re leaving, is sanctuary over?

Nationally the number of people in sanctuary has dropped from 40, in 2020, to 23 now.

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and children Yoselin, 14, Keyri, 16, and Edwin, 12, leave a gas station after buying snacks in Philadelphia on Monday. Hernandez and her four children have spent more than three years in church sanctuary, but now will be able to live freely while pursuing a visa that would allow them to live and work permanently in the United States.
Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and children Yoselin, 14, Keyri, 16, and Edwin, 12, leave a gas station after buying snacks in Philadelphia on Monday. Hernandez and her four children have spent more than three years in church sanctuary, but now will be able to live freely while pursuing a visa that would allow them to live and work permanently in the United States.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez doesn’t yet know where she’s going, but she knows what she’s leaving — the inside of Philadelphia church walls that for more than 1,100 days have been a comfortable prison.

The undocumented Mexican mother will celebrate during a Wednesday ceremony to mark her imminent departure from sanctuary, which shielded her and her four children from deportation to a homeland where they could have been killed.

They join a growing line of departures across the country. In December a family from Jamaica safely left a University City church, ending more than two years inside. In February, a Honduran immigrant stepped free in Missouri, and now a Pakistani woman is poised to leave a Michigan church after nearly three years.

Nationally the numbers of those in sanctuary are dropping fast, from 40 people in 16 states last year to 23 in 13 states today, according to Church World Service, a global faith-based organization.

That dramatic shift, driven by the Biden administration’s new, more narrow immigration-enforcement guidelines, has advocates and church leaders asking: Is sanctuary over?

Maybe, says Blanca Pacheco, codirector of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which supports Hernandez and other families. But she wouldn’t count on it.

The future of sanctuary, she said, will depend most immediately on President Joe Biden’s push for wide and lasting immigration reform. Will that happen, and when? How inclusive will it be? How well can the administration address the root causes of immigration, including the push factors of climate change, poverty, and danger?

In the future, it could be people with the most dire, intractable cases who take sanctuary, Pacheco noted.

No one wants to take sanctuary. It’s a tactic to buy time, undertaken by those desperate to avoid deportation and only when everything else has failed.

“I go back to when Carmela knocked on our doors, saying: ‘My family cannot be deported. I’m going to be killed. They’re going to be killed.’ What do you do when somebody knocks on your door and says their life depends on you supporting me?” Pacheco said. “When people have to survive, this phenomenon will continue happening.”

Hernandez, 39, and her children have spent more time in sanctuary than anyone else in Philadelphia during the last five years.

She said Monday she’s grateful to “so many people who as angels came into my and my children’s lives.”

She’s looking for a house to rent, and to continue guiding her children to build their futures, in school or careers or whatever they wish.

“I’m going to enjoy my time, my life, breathe the air outside,” she said, “go for a walk somewhere in the forest to lose myself in the fresh air.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told The Inquirer last week that Hernandez was no longer “a priority for enforcement.” They reiterated in a subsequent letter to her attorney that she fell outside the new agency guidelines that target threats to national security, border security, and public safety.

One certainty: In Philadelphia, sanctuary works.

Since Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, four families including a dozen undocumented immigrants took refuge. Despite unprecedented ICE enforcement, no one got arrested. No one was deported.

And as of Wednesday everyone will be out or leaving sanctuary.

“It’s not just that the churches are empty,” said Oneita Thompson, who spent two years and four months in sanctuary with her husband, Clive, and their two American-citizen children. “It’s that we got to stay. That’s a huge win for all the families in Philadelphia.”

The Thompsons fled death threats in Jamaica in 2004, building a life in South Jersey where, for 14 years, they worked, paid taxes, and raised their children. That life ended when Trump took office and moved to deport them.

“I hope we’ve seen the end of physical sanctuary, but we’re not out of the woods,” said Kristin Kumpf, director of human migration and mobility at the American Friends Service Committee. “Our immigration systems are still broken. We’re still seeing people being detained and deported, as long as our immigration system is based in ICE — an enforcement wing, instead of a support wing.”

The faith communities that have supported migrants in sanctuary are rejoicing as people leave, said the Rev. Noel Andersen, director of grassroots organizing at Church World Service. But there are still 23 people living in churches, and “we cannot rest until [all] families can live without the fear of separation or deportation.”

Churches are considered safe places because ICE “sensitive locations” guidelines dissuade agents from making arrests at schools, hospitals, and houses of worship.

Despite ICE’s not making them a priority, Hernandez and her children — Fidel, 18; Keyri, 16; Yoselin, 14; and Edwin, 12 — still carry final deportation orders. Hernandez wants a job to support her family, but, even free from sanctuary, she has no permission to work in the United States.

She’s counting on getting a U visa, which can go to undocumented immigrants who help the police solve crimes, to allow her and her children to stay and work here.

Hernandez’s children were assaulted during a 2019 church break-in. She also is appealing the denial of an earlier U visa application, which she sought as the victim of a 2017 attempted extortion in New Jersey.

Even as people leave sanctuary, they’ll continue to need help and support from churches, advocacy groups, and lawyers. Immigrants who stepped away from jobs and homes don’t simply slide back into those lives.

New Sanctuary Movement has started a fund-raiser to help pay for the Hernandez family’s rent, groceries, and living expenses.

Initially, when immigrant families began entering churches across the country, many activists thought they might be there for a year or so, until some solution was found and they could pursue their cases from positions of freedom.

No one imagined that sanctuary could go on for two, three, or more years. Nor could anyone imagine the price that families would pay.

Consider, advocates say, how so many Americans are struggling with the yearlong isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disorientation of being ripped from normal life and cut off from friends and family.

The Hernandez children were able to attend public school, but many families in sanctuary dare not step outside for a moment, lest they be seized and deported.

“Sanctuary is hard,” Thompson said. “It’s a prison without the chains on your feet.”

The Thompsons entered the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in late August 2018, the same time as Suyapa Reyes and her four young children.

Reyes came to this country in 2014 after gangs threatened her life in Honduras. The family ended 18 months in sanctuary in March 2020, when the government reversed itself and said they could stay.

The Thompsons, who moved to Tabernacle United Church in September, officially ended sanctuary in December when the government dropped its deportation case against them.

They’re in the process of becoming legal permanent residents of the United States.

The shortest Philadelphia sanctuary was that of Mexican immigrant Javier Flores Garcia, who lived 11 months in the Arch Street United Methodist Church. He left in October 2017 after being granted a U visa.

“I hope we’re at the end, as far as families needing to take shelter in churches,” Kumpf said. “The heart of sanctuary is so much deeper than the physical space. It’s the meals, hospitality, friendships, legal services. That won’t end. … The heart of sanctuary keeps beating.”