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Defying ICE: Undocumented mother in Philly sanctuary church sends her children to school

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez said her children need to be able to move and play and engage with others their age. Most of all, she said, they are entitled to an education, the same as any other child in the United States.

Mexican immigrants, Yoselin Artillero Apolonio, 11 and her sister, Keyri,13, make their way out of the Church of the Advocate to attend school in Philadelphia, Monday, January 29, 2018. The girls family is living in sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.
Mexican immigrants, Yoselin Artillero Apolonio, 11 and her sister, Keyri,13, make their way out of the Church of the Advocate to attend school in Philadelphia, Monday, January 29, 2018. The girls family is living in sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

During six weeks of sanctuary inside the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, Carmela Apolonio Hernandez weighed the options, reached a decision, and in Monday morning's grayish gloom, carried it out.

She sent her four children to public school, placing them outside the protective stone walls and stained glass of the 131-year-old Episcopal church.

It was risky. They, like she, are undocumented immigrants under federal order to be deported to Mexico. Most people who take church sanctuary don't dare step outside, knowing they could be immediately arrested by federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE.

But, Hernandez said in an interview at the church, the children need to move and play and engage with others their age. Most of all, she said, they are entitled to an education, the same as any other child in the United States.

"My children have a right to go to school, and we will make that happen," the 36-year-old mother said in Spanish. "They have to have as normal a life as possible."

A damp wind blew as about 50 friends, clergy, elected leaders and activists provided a loud, cheering send-off to the children — Edwin, 9, Yoselin, 11, Keyri, 13, and Fidel, 15 — leaving the cramped safety of the church for a waiting minivan. They were accompanied nu State Rep. Chris Rabb as they were whisked across the city streets.

The children awoke at 5 a.m. Monday, eager to get to school. Shortly after 8 a.m., they, family and friends gathered in a circle inside the church, holding hands, each calling out a single word they felt in their hearts.

Love, one man said. Solidarity, said another. Empathy. Perseverance. Freedom. Ancestors.

The crowd gathered outside the church's front steps under a banner emblazoned, "Sanctuary Not Deportation." They sang "This Little Light of Mine," and yelled and clapped at each mention of the children's names. The four left through the same door they had entered in mid-December, now clutching brand-new notebooks and fresh pens.

"Philadelphia has a heart big enough to embrace the entire world, to embrace Carmela and her family," City Councilwoman Helen Gym told the assembled. "This family is loved and welcomed here in our city."

Leaders of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an advocacy organization that assists the family, declined to specify which schools the children would attend.

"We wish our new students all the best as they begin their first day in our public schools," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement. "Our schools are safe places to learn, and we welcome every child and family with open arms regardless of background."

This new bid to have both sanctuary and school poses a direct challenge to ICE, which has detained children as young as 10 and asserts the right to arrest undocumented immigrants anywhere. It promises to test the resolve of the Kenney administration, which has defended Philadelphia's "sanctuary city" status in federal court, and that of a school system that says it stands strong for immigrant students. It will stretch the organizing power of immigrant groups already strained by the roiling changes in federal policy under President Trump.

"On one hand, I feel really happy, because I get to go back to school and breathe some fresh air," said Keyri, eager to attend gym class and to study English, a favorite subject. "On the other hand, I'm a little worried ICE will get me."

ICE agents are empowered to make traffic stops. But first they must reasonably suspect that the car carries undocumented immigrants. Those suspicions must be based upon specific, objective facts, not merely the physical appearance of the driver and passengers, according to immigration attorneys.

No ICE agents were in sight near the church on Monday.  Advocates said the children were returned safely to the church at the end of the school day.

Hernandez and her children took sanctuary to block a forced return to Mexico that she says could get them killed by the same criminals who murdered other family members. It was the second time since Trump's election that a person or family sought protection from deportation by moving into a Philadelphia church.

Today, nearly three dozen people live in sanctuary in churches around the country, seeking not only to shield themselves but to challenge the U.S. immigration system. They and their supporters say sanctuary is an act of civil disobedience, a means to protest the injustice of deportation.

To others, such as the hard-line Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington, church sanctuary wrongly aims to thwart federal law and block authorities from carrying out their duties. A church setting doesn't exempt anyone from the law, and church leaders could face potential criminal penalties for harboring undocumented people, FAIR officials say.

ICE guidelines generally deter agents from taking action at designated "sensitive locations," which include schools, hospitals and churches. But agents have arrested people immediately outside those places, angering immigrant groups that accuse ICE and its companion agency, Customs and Border Protection, of violating their own policies.

In October, border patrol agents at a Texas checkpoint stopped an ambulance, followed it to a hospital, and waited as an undocumented 10-year-old girl underwent surgery — then took her away to a juvenile detention center. Rosa Maria Hernandez, who has cerebral palsy, was released after the ACLU filed a lawsuit.

In February 2017 in Los Angeles, Romulo Avelica-González was arrested by ICE agents after he dropped off his 12-year-old daughter at school. Another daughter sobbed as she captured the arrest on her cellphone — video that quickly went viral.

On Monday, when asked if ICE agents would attempt to detain the four children as they travel to school, a spokesman responded, "ICE does not speculate on pending or proposed enforcement actions but our sensitive location policy remains in effect."

Part of the reason family supporters are driving the children to school is to be able to quickly move them from one sensitive location to another.

"If ICE takes my children and deports them, I will hold ICE responsible for anything that happens," Hernandez said. "Because the reason we're here is that our lives are in danger in Mexico."

Hernandez had been ordered to leave this country by Dec. 15, following denial of the family's petition for asylum. She spent eight days knocking on church doors in South Jersey and Pennsylvania before being welcomed at the Advocate, famed for its firm, decades-long posture on civil rights.

The family came to the United States in August 2015, fleeing the violence of organized drug criminals who killed Carmela's brother and two of her nephews. Her relatives were taxi drivers, she said, and were murdered when they were unable to pay an extortion fee.

She and her eldest daughter were threatened and assaulted by the same criminals, who came to their home and demanded money, she said. Terrified, Hernandez gathered the children and headed north, approaching U.S. immigration authorities at the border in San Diego and asking for asylum.

After three days in detention, the family was released to the care of a relative, an American citizen in Pennsylvania. The family later settled in Vineland, N.J.

Hernandez still wears a monitor that authorities locked to her ankle in California.

She is appealing the denial of asylum. Meanwhile, the family's world has shrunk to a single room, formerly Classroom B in the church basement.

As days and weeks passed, Hernandez said, she saw how dearly her children wanted to be with others in an educational environment. Internet classes or a visiting tutor couldn't provide that.

"I'm obviously worried," Hernandez said. "If ICE touches my children, I would move earth, sky and water to get them back."