Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Daylong standoff at Senator Casey’s office ends for undocumented mother who left sanctuary

"I reached my limit, or what I thought were my limits, a long time ago," Hernandez said of her 10 months living in church sanctuary. "But I still have strength, and I've decided to use my strength to take a risk."

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, 37, during her day-long protest at U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's Center City office.
Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, 37, during her day-long protest at U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's Center City office.Read moreDavid Swanson / Staff Writer

A dramatic day of freedom and confrontation unfolded Wednesday when Carmela Apolonio Hernandez purposefully left the Church of the Advocate after 10 months in sanctuary, and traveled to demand answers of Sen. Bob Casey in his Center City office.

It ended with the undocumented mother's near arrest by Philadelphia police.

As evening commuters rushed past the senator's office lobby, Hernandez and her 14-year-old daughter, Keyri, faced about 30 officers, handcuffs at the ready. Police had ordered the Mexican woman and her allies to leave the premises or be arrested.

Hernandez shouted tearfully at them in Spanish: "You're going to arrest a child?"

The Rev. Robin Hynicka of Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City was handcuffed and taken away after refusing to leave the building near 20th and Market Streets. After that, the police officers stepped back, arrayed in a semicircle while Hernandez, her daughter, and half a dozen core allies blocked the east side doors.

Hernandez had said she would not leave until Casey agreed to help her and her children legally stay in the United States. She changed her mind after learning from her attorney that if arrested, she would be separated from her daughter.

"This is not over," the 37-year-old woman said as she prepared to leave the building. "I'm going to keep fighting."

She had arrived unannounced shortly after 9 a.m., and spent most of the day inside Casey's upper-floor office. After meeting with the senator's staff, Hernandez, her daughter, and some supporters refused to leave his office, staging a sit-in that lasted nearly the entire day.

Later, in interviews with reporters she poured scorn on Casey. She said his staff offered her candy, when what she needed was a powerful senator's help.

Casey, who was in Washington on Wednesday, said that he has worked to help the Hernandez family since soon after the mother and four children took sanctuary in mid-December and that he would continue to do so.

He has for months called top officials at federal immigration agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, asking that the family's asylum case be reviewed and reconsidered. The Pennsylvania Democrat is running for reelection, and polls show him with a double-digit lead over his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, an outspoken hard-liner on immigration.

"I feel disillusioned because of him," Hernandez said Wednesday evening of Casey. "But I feel proud of myself."

By leaving the church at 18th and Diamond Streets, and moving into the open, Hernandez put herself and her daughter at risk of immediate arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

Asked if the agency would move to detain the woman, an ICE spokesperson responded by issuing the same statement about her case that had been released months before. It neither answered the question nor provided new information.

In addition to her elder daughter, Hernandez was accompanied to Casey's office by the Rev. Renee McKenzie of the Advocate and several friends and supporters. Her other children — Edwin, 9; Yoselin, 12; and Fidel, 16 — were in school.

The Hernandez family face standing deportation orders, issued after the denial of their petition for asylum. They sought protection in the church days before their scheduled deportation.

ICE guidelines dissuade agents from taking action at designated "sensitive locations," such as churches, schools, and hospitals. But undocumented immigrants can be arrested elsewhere at any time.

Earlier in the day she refused to meet with Casey's staff in a basement area, saying she was tired of living underground, in the shadows.

A few minutes later, she was invited to the main office upstairs, where she spoke by phone with the senator.

Afterward, his office released a statement:

"Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her children face life-threatening danger in their home country, which is why I have pushed the administration to treat them fairly and appropriately evaluate their asylum claim.

"Over many months, I have advocated on the family's behalf. … I, along with my staff, will continue to advocate for measures that will provide them the protections they are due under our laws."

Casey staffers said the private bill sought by Hernandez would do little to help her case. In fact, it might hurt. In the past, private bills could be used to delay ICE deportations. But in May 2017 the agency told Congress those pieces of legislation would no longer be sufficient to merit a delay.

The senator's office provided a list of his multiple calls and contacts with Trump administration officials, including those at Homeland Security, asking for the family to be granted a stay of deportation or other relief.

Hernandez said being forced back to Mexico could get the family killed by gangsters who murdered her brother and two nephews. The five came to the United States in 2015, after Carmela and Keyri were threatened and assaulted by the same drug criminals.

Hernandez left the safety of the Episcopal church even though she still has legal appeals and applications pending before government agencies and the courts. She has appealed the denial of asylum in federal court, and is asking the Board of Immigration Appeals to review the way her deportation documents were handled.

She also has applied for what is called a U visa, which can be granted to immigrants who have been the victims of certain crimes in America, and who help police prosecute the criminal activity.

The same type of visa application enabled a Mexican immigrant — stabbed in an assault years earlier — to end 11 months of sanctuary inside Arch Street Methodist Church in Center City last year.

Hernandez was the victim of an attempted extortion, which occurred last year when the family was living in New Jersey, according to her lawyer, David Bennion.

During the last 10 months, Hernandez has insisted she will never give up trying to stay in the U.S., and that her children's lives could be at stake.

At the same time, the pressures of sanctuary have been building. In August, an emotional Hernandez said that staying inside, all day, every day, with no end in sight, was becoming harder, that she was suffering with allergies, headaches, joint pain, and an ear infection.

Last January she began sending her children to public school. They also have left the church grounds at other times under specific, controlled conditions.

Wednesday night she was headed by car back to the North Philadelphia church, her day of freedom over.