On the night of her would-be deportation, a mother and her daughters seek asylum in a Utah church

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez, speaks with the Salt Lake Tribune with translation help from Unidad Immigrante's Fabiola Madrigal and Amy Dominguez from the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City Wednesday January 31, 2018. Instead of boarding a plane to carry out her deportation to Honduras on Tuesday night, Chavez instead headed to the First Unitarian Church to seek sanctuary from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She stayed at the church last night, and volunteers from the church and other organizations plan to keep her there, helping her with things like groceries, until her case seeking asylum moves through the judicial system.

The tickets were purchased. She and her two children were checked in for their flight to Honduras. Then Vicky Chavez, facing deportation Tuesday night, changed her mind.

She and her family were staying in Salt Lake City.

Chavez and her daughters — ages 6 and 4 months — had the option to seek sanctuary in Utah for several months, but until hours before her flight, it wasn’t her choice, said Amy Dominguez, spokeswoman for the activist group Unidad Inmigrante (Immigrant Unity).

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Supporters gather at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, where Vicky Chavez sought sanctuary Tuesday. Chavez was set to be deported to her home country of Honduras.

When Chavez was saying goodbye to friends and supporters, she realized she couldn’t go. She fled Honduras for asylum in the United States in 2014 because of domestic abuse, violence and economic and social upheaval in her native country, supporters said, and she wasn’t going to take her children back to face that kind of danger.

“She is going to a place where she’d be fearing for her daily life,” Dominguez said. “It’s dangerous. I know that the decision she made today was by looking at the faces of her children.”

Now Chavez and her children will stay at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, in a classroom that’s been converted to a living space, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith said.

His congregation, he said, unanimously voted about eight years ago to be a sanctuary for those who needed it.

“Most fundamental to our faith is the belief that every person deserves a certain measure of respect, and that is why this church has opened its doors to a neighbor,” Goldsmith said during a news conference at the church Tuesday night.

Volunteers have instructions to staff the church around the clock to make sure Chavez and her children are safe and to take care of basic needs, like laundry and shopping, because the family can’t leave the church, said Kristin Knippenberg, with the Salt Lake City Sanctuary Solidarity Network. She was staying at the church Tuesday night.

Dominguez said Chavez will stay until her asylum case winds its way through the immigration system.

Had Chavez left Tuesday night, she would have been at least the second mother deported from Salt Lake City in a little over a month.

Maria Santiago Garcia and her four children were deported to Guatemala on Dec. 25.

“What’s frustrating is Utah is so family-oriented, is so family-based,” Dominguez said. “I want to know, how many more mothers will it take for Utah to step in and protect these families?”