It's been about eight months since Carmela Apolonio Hernandez took her four children to the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, declaring sanctuary in an effort to avoid deportation to Mexico.
On Thursday, her 13-year-old daughter Keyri spoke before City Council, explaining her childhood since fleeing the violence of organized drug criminals who killed two of her cousins and uncle.
"I'm a person that, at my age, has experienced what it is to live in sanctuary as well as a detention center, while seeking asylum. And, it's not easy," the 13-year-old said in Spanish, sobbing and wiping away tears with her sweatshirt sleeve.
She recalled the girl she met in detention whose father and mother had been killed, how her own mother couldn't sleep because officers would call roll every few hours. Now, when she sees what's happening at the border, she's reminded of what her family has been through since coming to the United States in 2015. "If you can find a way to support them," said Keyri, who stood before council with her 9-year-old brother Edwin, "please do it."
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Then, council members passed a resolution that calls on the Department of Homeland Security to reopen her family's case for asylum, and urges Congress to provide relief for the children's mother, Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, who had been ordered to leave the United States by Dec. 15, following the denial of the family's petition.
David Bennion, the attorney representing Hernandez's case, said the resolution backs their campaign efforts to gain a safe legal status.
"Even if the city of Philadelphia can't directly grant relief in Carmela's case, they are showing solidarity with her and her family and calling on other elected officials on the federal level to take action," Bennion said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requested deportation for the entire family while her case is still pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals, Bennion said.
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Hernandez, who didn't appear at council's session to avoid ICE prosecution, had a statement read in her absence thanking Councilwoman Helen Gym for introducing the resolution, and asked for the support of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and Gov. Wolf. In April of this year, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady introduced a bill to protect undocumented families from deportation.
The Rev. Renee McKenzie, the pastor at Church of the Advocate who took the family in last December, said her top concern is establishing a future for the children. "We make their stay as comfortable as possible, but it's shameful to see all that energy get cooked up in the building."