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In an ICE lobby in Center City, a microcosm of immigration battles

ICE officials first rejected, then accepted petitions that call for a stay of the deportation order against the Hernandez family while they pursue their case in court.

Attorney Dave Bennion, Gerardo Flores, Rev. Renee McKenzie, and New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia director Peter Pedemonti request admittance from ICE agents to deliver petitions on behalf of the Hernandez family.
Attorney Dave Bennion, Gerardo Flores, Rev. Renee McKenzie, and New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia director Peter Pedemonti request admittance from ICE agents to deliver petitions on behalf of the Hernandez family.Read moreTRACIE VAN AUKEN

It was a short, cold confrontation involving fewer than a dozen people — and a microcosm of the collision between harsh enforcement and stern resistance that's driving the voluble national debate over immigration.

It took place near Eighth and Cherry Streets on Tuesday, as about 40 singing, sign-waving demonstrators massed outside the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They demanded that Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her four children — all undocumented, all ordered deported to Mexico — be allowed to leave the sanctuary of a North Philadelphia church and live freely while pursuing their legal case for asylum.

Shortly before noon, a five-person delegation stepped inside glass doors to the ICE lobby, seeking to present agency officials with a legal plea to stay the deportations and to hand them 3,220 signatures on petitions supporting the family.

The inner door hadn't closed before several ICE officers stepped forward.

Mail it, one said.

"We're very disappointed," responded Peter Pedemonti, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. He had understood that a supervisor would meet them.

State Rep. Christopher Rabb, one of the five, asked the officers if, as one government representative to another, he could speak with an ICE commander about the Hernandez family.

Make an appointment, he was told.

Rabb, a Democrat representing Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, and West Oak Lane, handed his business card to an officer. Another called out, "Check his ID, just to make it official."

For long minutes, the groups stood frozen, no one moving. Then the Rev. Renee McKenzie, vicar of the Church of the Advocate, where the Hernandez family has been living since mid-December, called for a prayer — for everyone present.

"Bless us now, in this place," she prayed aloud. "Give us all a taste of grace."

That seemed to break the tension.

Soon afterward, the family's attorney, David Bennion, was permitted to meet with ICE supervisors. He submitted a formal request for ICE to suspend the family's deportation orders while their court case proceeds and handed over the signed petitions, according to New Sanctuary movement leaders.

They had no immediate word late Tuesday as to whether ICE was considering the request.

But for supporters of the Hernandez family and others who believe the Trump administration's enforcement tactics ruin lives and separate families, those tense minutes in the lobby amounted to an unhappy, face-to-face meeting with the opposition.

"Very intimidating," Rabb said.

"A little chilly," McKenzie said, adding, "We made our point."

ICE officials said in a statement that the agency "fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion peacefully without interference." An immigration judge already had ordered the family removed, but "in an exercise of discretion, ICE has allowed Ms. Hernandez to remain free from custody while finalizing her departure plans," the statement said.

According to ICE guidelines, agents should avoid taking action at "sensitive locations," which include schools, hospitals, and churches. But arrests have been made just outside those places, and no law formally blocks authorities from entering a church.

The family marked two months inside the Church of the Advocate on Tuesday.

Hernandez, 36, says she fears that being deported to Mexico could get her and her children, ages 9 to 15, murdered by the same gangsters who killed her brother and two nephews.

On Tuesday, their supporters held up strings of handmade paper butterflies, each a color of the rainbow. Butterflies are free, demonstrators said. And they migrate freely as well.

"The immigration laws in this country do not do justice to immigrant families," New Sanctuary board member Gerardo Flores told the crowd. "We ask for justice, not for some but for all. We ask that families not be separated."

The crowd fell silent to hear a recorded message from Hernandez and another from her 13-year-old daughter, Keyri.

"We're not bad people," Keyri said. "All we want is to be able to study [and] to live a good life."

Traffic slowed on Eighth Street as the crowd overflowed the sidewalk onto the street.

"Go home!" one man shouted from a passing car.

Other drivers honked their horns in support.

The Hernandez case marks the second time a person or family has taken church sanctuary in Philadelphia since the election of Donald Trump. The mother made fresh headlines in January by deciding to send her children out of the church each day to attend public school, a risky challenge to ICE.

So far, none of the children has been detained.

People in sanctuary depend on a presumption of security, based on a concept that goes back to the Bible and its "six cities of refuge." But many immigration hard-liners think ICE and other authorities should enforce the law, church or no church.

Groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington say sanctuary seeks to thwart federal law and block legally sworn police from carrying out their duties. A church setting doesn't exempt anyone from the law, FAIR officials say, and religious leaders who harbor undocumented immigrants could face charges.

More undocumented immigrants are taking sanctuary now than at any time since the 1980s, according to a report by Church World Service, a Christian coalition that tracks sanctuary cases. The number of people in sanctuary jumped from five to 42 in the last two years. Since Trump's election, the churches, synagogues, and mosques ready to offer haven have surged from 400 to 1,110.

People who crowded the Eighth Street sidewalk Tuesday said they want people out of sanctuary — to freedom, not deportation.

Susan Saxe of Mount Airy stood holding a small orange sign: "Do not mistreat or oppress the strangers among you, for you were strangers in a strange land."

That's how it was for her grandparents, she said. They were newcomers, without the ability to go back, just like the Hernandez family.

"I'm a mom," Saxe said. "Would I bring my children to a place where they risk being murdered?"