By the time she hung up the phone, Blanca Pacheco was shaking so badly she knew she wouldn’t be able to drive.

She quickly called Suyapa Reyes, the undocumented Honduran immigrant living 18 months inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where she took sanctuary with her four children to avoid deportation.

“I’m coming to the church,” Pacheco told her.

She handed her car keys to Peter Pedemonti, her codirector of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. When they arrived at the church 20 minutes later, Reyes was waiting in the small rear lobby. Did she have an inkling? It didn’t matter. Pacheco spoke quickly.

“It’s over,” she told Reyes. “You won.”

For one migrant family, and for dozens of immigration activists across the Philadelphia region, the news last month from aides to Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) capped a dramatic victory. The U.S. government had reversed itself, agreeing to let Reyes stay and work in the country four years after it had ordered her deported. At 5 p.m. Thursday she’ll officially end 554 days in sanctuary, leaving the church surrounded by friends and supporters in what organizers are calling a “Freedom Walk.”

Suyapa Reyes, who has been living for 18 months inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, packs her family's belongings in anticipation of their move to an apartment. On Thursday she and her family will have a formal "Walk to Freedom" to celebrate her ability to leave the church and live and work in the United States.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Suyapa Reyes, who has been living for 18 months inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, packs her family's belongings in anticipation of their move to an apartment. On Thursday she and her family will have a formal "Walk to Freedom" to celebrate her ability to leave the church and live and work in the United States.

Taking sanctuary is a last choice, a gambit by migrants who have exhausted their legal efforts to stay in the country or need time to see if other strategies can flower. Houses of worship are considered safe, because Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “sensitive locations” policy generally bars agents from making arrests in churches, schools, hospitals, and college campuses.

Amid the Trump administration’s tough immigration tactics, churches have become a central theater of resistance, and Philadelphia has been a hub.

Reyes’ freedom followed a more-than-year-long campaign waged publicly and privately by a coalition of organizations, led by New Sanctuary Movement and supported by the hospitality of the church, and including groups like Puentes de Salud, La Puerta Abierta, Northwest Philadelphia Immigrant Action and Mobilization, and the Free Migration Project.

“We believe in the power of people acting together to fight injustice,” Pacheco said.

But sanctuary is simultaneously solution and problem. It offers people protection from authorities while alerting those same agencies to their exact location. It comes without a time limit. Depression can be common as the months stretch out.

Reyes plans to stay in Philadelphia, to get an apartment and find a job, to surrender the stress that has been a constant companion. She’ll live at the church a few more days while her housing is finalized.

“I will be able to work and stay with my children,” said Reyes, 38, “because they are the reason for my existence, they are the reason I stay alive.”

Blanca Pacheco, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, speaks in 2018 at the Working People's Day of Action rally. NSM was key to Reyes' ability to leave church sanctuary in Germantown.
SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Blanca Pacheco, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, speaks in 2018 at the Working People's Day of Action rally. NSM was key to Reyes' ability to leave church sanctuary in Germantown.

Many people in sanctuary are sustained by deep spiritual beliefs, as are the groups that support them. In announcing Reyes’ freedom last week, NSM quoted from the Gospel of Luke, citing a parable Jesus told his followers:

“And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God … because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice.’ ”

A flight from violence in Honduras, and shelter in a Sunday school classroom

Reyes crossed into the United States in 2014, seeking asylum and telling authorities that criminal gangs had threatened to kill her in Honduras.

She saw America as her only chance for safety. The federal government saw otherwise, denying asylum and ordering her deported in 2016. Reyes’ first appeal was rejected in mid-2017, her second in mid-2018.

But crucially, in between she applied for a U Visa, which can go to crime victims who assist law enforcement in a subsequent investigation. Reyes filed as a victim of domestic violence.

The visa process is slow and painstaking, the outcome uncertain. In September 2018, as deportation loomed, Reyes moved into what had been a Sunday School classroom, accompanied by her children, Jennifer, now 14; Yamie, 9; Jeison, 4; and Junior, 2. The two youngest are American citizens.

A Jamaican couple, Clive and Oneita Thompson, took sanctuary at the same time in the same church, where they remain.

Reyes, the Thompsons, and a third family in sanctuary at a nearby church notified ICE of their whereabouts, insisting they were not hiding but challenging what they saw as an unfair immigration system. Casey personally visited the Reyes and Thompson families, promising to do all he could to help.

In February, Philadelphia clergy including associate pastor John Bergen, center, of the Germantown Mennonite Church, delivered a letter to Congressman Dwight Evans’ office to urge him to act for families in Sanctuary in Philadelphia. Numa St. Louis, a representative from Evans’ office accepted the letter. Carmela Hernandez, Suyapa Reyes, and Clive and Oneita Thompson have been living in church sanctuary.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
In February, Philadelphia clergy including associate pastor John Bergen, center, of the Germantown Mennonite Church, delivered a letter to Congressman Dwight Evans’ office to urge him to act for families in Sanctuary in Philadelphia. Numa St. Louis, a representative from Evans’ office accepted the letter. Carmela Hernandez, Suyapa Reyes, and Clive and Oneita Thompson have been living in church sanctuary.

Reyes’ best chance for freedom turned on securing a U Visa. Congress created the program in 2000 to help police battle domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking, and at the same time protect migrant victims who suffered abuse. Many undocumented immigrants hesitate to report crimes for fear of deportation.

More than 28,000 people filed applications in fiscal 2019. But the government caps the annual number of visas at 10,000, so even those who are approved can wait years for the actual document. In the meantime, however, those approved may be granted what’s called deferred action, which bars their deportation until the visa arrives.

Reyes’ lawyer, David Bennion, who directs the Free Migration Project, filed hundreds of pages of evidence and documentation with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to prove her case.

“My only doubt,” he said, “was whether USCIS would apply the correct legal standard in good faith.”

A USCIS spokesperson said the agency is prohibited from sharing information about those who seek benefits like U Visas.

For migrants like Reyes, a U Visa means everything, because it can open the door to becoming a lawful permanent resident. And in all but limited circumstances, those green-card holders can apply to become U.S. citizens.

Carmela Hernandez, center, in red shirt, has spent more than two years in church sanctuary. Here she stands at the steps of the Germantown Mennonite Church as she announces her plans for a one-day-a-week fast to rally support for her immigration case. Hernandez says she and her four children could be killed by gangsters if they are deported to Mexico. At right, with microphone, is Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
Jeff Gammage
Carmela Hernandez, center, in red shirt, has spent more than two years in church sanctuary. Here she stands at the steps of the Germantown Mennonite Church as she announces her plans for a one-day-a-week fast to rally support for her immigration case. Hernandez says she and her four children could be killed by gangsters if they are deported to Mexico. At right, with microphone, is Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.

NSM had organized loud protests outside the Center City field office of ICE, and behind the scenes implored elected officials including Casey and Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.), both of whom agreed to work inside the government to try to help. Every day, letters, vigils, and petitions were aimed at a single goal, to enable three families, now two, to leave sanctuary and live normal lives in the United States.

In November 2019, as Reyes passed the one-year mark in sanctuary, NSM leaders renewed their push. They met with Evans, asking the congressman to contact USCIS and advocate for Reyes and for Hernandez, who also sought a U Visa.

Three months later, in February, feeling ignored, New Sanctuary Movement staged a vigil outside Evans’ Ogontz Avenue office, bringing a letter signed by 50 ministers that urged the congressman to act. Evans continued working on the case.

Word trickled back to NSM that Reyes’ application was being considered.

On Feb. 13, an Evans staffer called the NSM office: A decision had been made on Reyes’ case. They would hear soon. The next day, Valentine’s Day, Casey’s aides phoned with the good news, sending Pacheco to the Germantown church with news of the U Visa and deferred action.

At first, Pacheco said, Reyes looked at her as if she were crazy. Then came tears and hugs. Reyes asked if it was really true, then joked, “I want proof of that."

The next two weeks were spent making sure that Reyes would have government permissions in her hand before she stepped from the church. On Super Tuesday, with the nation focused on primary election results, a single NSM tweet announced the news.

“It forever changed the meaning of Feb. 14,” Pacheco said, “for her and for us.”