‘I will keep fighting’: Woman who has sought sanctuary in Salt Lake City church for six months loses asylum appeal, but not hope

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Vicky Chavez, a Honduran woman who has been living in a Utah church with her two daughters after her appeal to have her asylum case reconsidered was denied said she will remain living at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, July 9, 2018. Chavez and her daughters, ages 6 and 4 months, have been staying in a classroom that was converted to a living space since Jan. 30.

Vicky Chavez and her two daughters have not been outdoors in nearly six months.

“It is hard,” she said, glancing at the rays of evening sunlight streaming through the large windows of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. “But it is too dangerous.”

The Chavez family will remain inside the church for the foreseeable future now that an immigration court has denied the Honduran mother’s appeal to have her asylum case reconsidered.

“My world came crashing down,” said Chavez, who has lived with her daughters — ages 6 and 1 — in a church classroom that was converted to living space since Jan. 30. “I cried out of anger, out of rage and sadness. But I say I will keep fighting.”

Chavez fled Honduras for asylum in the United States in 2014 to escape an abusive boyfriend who repeatedly threatened to kill her, she has said. Asylum was refused, but she appealed, claiming her attorneys botched the case. She also asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement to delay her family’s removal while her appeal was pending, said Easton Smith, member of the advocacy group Unidad Immigrante (Immigrant Unity).

But that request also was denied, Smith said, and the family sought refuge behind the walls of the church — traditionally a place of sanctuary, which ICE agents so far have honored.

“Vicky has done everything an asylum seeker is supposed to do,” Smith said during a news conference Monday night.

Chavez said she will appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to try to overrule the latest denial. She acknowledged it could be difficult since the Trump administration last month announced domestic violence no longer would be considered grounds for asylum.

“I know not everything is lost [for domestic violence victims],” Chavez said. “... Experiencing domestic violence is not easy, but we have to continue fighting.”

Life inside the church is “confinement,” acknowledged Joan Gregory, the church’s director of sanctuary services.

“Vicky’s little baby has spent half her life in sanctuary,” Gregory said of Chavez’s younger daughter, Issabella, who celebrated her first birthday this weekend with friends and family.

Chavez said her relatives in Salt Lake City are citizens, but for her and the girls to seek citizenship would take years — and require her to return to Honduras, where she fears her ex-boyfriend will make good on his threats and the local authorities will not help her.

Chavez’s older daughter, 6-year-old Yaretzi, receives tutoring and sometimes gets to play with volunteers’ children, Chavez said. A volunteer standing behind Chavez at Monday’s news conference held a poster that read: “A 6-year-old political prisoner in Utah?!? Free Yaretzi!!”

“She doesn’t know very much about what’s going on,” Chavez said, but the child seems to understand her mother’s options are few.

“I apologized to her,” Chavez said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry for what I’m doing to you.’ ... The hardest thing is that my daughters cannot lead a normal life.”