‘Now we can go to Disneyland’ — Biden’s election may let mom and her daughters leave the Utah church they’ve been in for three years

Vicky Chavez and her two daughters have been in sanctuary to avoid deportation to a country she says is unsafe.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez has been living at the First Unitarian Church for more than three years, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

When the pandemic began, a two-week home lockdown was more than many Americans wanted to deal with. Vicky Chavez hasn’t stepped outside in more than three years.
She and her two young daughters have been stuck inside Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church, where she is seeking sanctuary from immigration enforcement. The mother fears for her safety, and that of her children, if she has to return to Honduras, where she fled because of domestic abuse and social upheaval.
Her status has become even more stressful in the past year because she has been given a $60,000 federal fine for refusing to leave the country.
But the inauguration of a new U.S. president has given her hope that she soon will be able to leave the church.
“When President [Joe] Biden swore with his hand on the Bible, I said thank God, and the people who vote, we have a new president,” she wrote in an email. “My little daughter hearing that just said, ‘Yea, now we can go to Disneyland.’ I was smiling and I replied to her, ‘Soon, my princess,’ and she only replied, ‘No, Mommy, right now.’ ”
Until that day comes, Chavez stays strong by keeping her mind and hands busy at all times. As she spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune over Zoom this month, she was working on crocheting a miniature Sen. Bernie Sanders, dressed in the internet-famous coat and mask he wore to Biden’s inauguration.
Chavez also spends a lot of time with her two children.
The youngest is 3 years old and has spent most of her life inside the church at 569 S. 1300 East. Her little hands waved on screen at one point while Chavez was speaking as the child tried to get her mother’s attention. Her older daughter, who is 9, is taking classes online. Helping her with her schoolwork takes up some of Chavez’s time.
Chavez does her own cooking in the church’s kitchen. She said she gets up at 7 a.m. most days to prepare breakfast before her 9-year-old starts classes.
She makes the beds, sews masks and studies English to pass the time. The family has lunch and dinner together, and all three watch TV before the girls go to sleep.
Faith helps see her through the days and nights, too. Chavez attended an evangelical church as a child with her grandma and grew up with God in her “heart and mind.” When things get tough, she prays and reads her prayer book.
“I am OK with everything we receive in life. … I put myself in the hands of God,” she said in the Zoom interview. “He knows what is my future with my kids.”
It is unclear how much longer she will have to wait to leave the church’s walls, but she hopes the Biden administration will help her.
“My feelings and my hopes grow with a new administration. We know that President Biden has nothing against immigrants, and we have faith in God that he will help us,” she wrote in an email. “We hope one day that we will all come out of the refuge of living inside the churches.”
Religion News Service reported this week that a handful of undocumented immigrants have left sanctuary in places of worship in recent days, including a Mexican native who had been living in an Ohio Mennonite church for more than three years. The mother of three went home after being assured that she no longer would be immediately targeted for deportation.
Chavez and dozens of others nationwide, however, remain holed up.
In addition to allowing Chavez to remain in the United States, she and her lawyers are asking the federal government to waive the $60,000 fine she received from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They say she was illegally targeted by ICE because she has been an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights.

How she ended up in sanctuary

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez has been living at the First Unitarian Church for more than three years, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

Chavez came to the United States in 2014. She says she was fleeing a boyfriend who threatened to kill her, but her asylum application was denied. Still, she had some protection under an executive action from then-President Barack Obama that stated undocumented immigrants who didn’t commit crimes and paid taxes would’t be prioritized for deportation.
After Donald Trump took office, he reversed that order in 2017, and proceedings began for Chavez’s deportation.
She sought sanctuary in January 2018 at the First Unitarian Church, where she has been living with her children in a classroom that was transformed into a home.
The congregants voted in 2008 to open their doors to immigrants seeking refuge, according to the Rev. Tom Goldsmith. He said the church had to do some “mad scrambling” in December 2017 as they prepared to take in Chavez and her kids, but the members stepped up to help. Volunteers pick up supplies for her and ensure she is never alone in the church for her safety.
Although there is no law preventing ICE agents from going into churches, internal protocols call for them to stay out of houses of worship. Because of this, these places across the country have opened their doors to undocumented immigrants.
While living in sanctuary, Chavez has not stayed in the shadows. She has spoken to national and Utah outlets, including The Tribune, about her story. Chavez was even the subject of the RadioWest Films documentary “Sanctuary.” Her lawyers say her outspokenness is the reason for some of her current legal woes.

Her first fine was for six figures

(Michael Mangum | Special to The Tribune file photo) Vicky Chavez speaks to the congregation during a vigil held at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, January 30, 2019. The vigil marked the one-year anniversary of when Chavez came to the church with her children seeking sanctuary from deportation.

The first civil immigration fine against Chavez came in June 2019. It was for nearly half a million dollars because she didn’t leave the United States when she was supposed to be deported.
Chavez said she began shaking as soon as she was told she had received a letter from ICE. She knew it could only be bad news. Someone had to read the letter to her since it was written in English. That person told her she was being fined $453,832 and urged her not to worry.
“But I said how am I going to pay a half-million? I depend on the church for everything,” Chavez said. “I don’t know why ICE picked me to pay a fine for that amount just because I want to protect my daughters from my [native] country.”
With help from her attorneys, the fine has since been reduced to $60,000, but even that amount is far out of Chavez’s reach.
In January, she joined three other undocumented women living in sanctuary in different states who have faced similar fines in suing the federal government. Their lawsuit alleges that the fines are an infringement on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion because advocating for sanctuary for immigrants is part of their “deeply held” religious beliefs.
“Individual Plaintiffs believe that they have a religious duty to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35 ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’) and to participate collectively to prevent vulnerable human beings and their families from being sent back to countries and conditions that would threaten their lives or wellbeing,” reads the lawsuit. “As such, they believe that they have a religious duty to participate in the sanctuary movement and advocate individually and collectively on behalf of themselves and their families, and for immigrant rights broadly.”
The lawsuit also argues that the “excessive fines” are prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.
This sort of fine is unusual for the government to enact, according to the lawsuit. It alleges that the fines have been targeted at a handful of “sanctuary leaders,” most of whom are women.
Chavez’s religious beliefs call for her to participate in social justice work and advocate for immigrant rights, the lawsuit asserts. She sees the church offering sanctuary as “an act of faith” and that she believes it is an act of faith to accept.
ICE’s Salt Lake City field office did not respond to emails about Chavez’s case and fines.
Alina Das, Co-Director of the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and a lawyer representing Chavez, said the federal government never intended to cash in on the fines. She said they are meant to silence women like Chavez, warning them that if they speak out, the government will come for them, even within the walls of a church.
“They are telling these women we will send you these papers that will exact such large fines that you will be in debt,” she said, “and you will not have a hope of ever living a life where you can feel that you and your family are truly secure in this country.”
Das said that sort of retaliation has a “chilling effect” on their First Amendment rights.

Will Biden team ‘do the right thing’?

Das said the suit was targeted at Trump’s administration and has been inherited by the Biden team. She said the question now is whether the new president will rescind the fines and grant the women stays of deportation. She said his administration has 60 days from when the lawsuit was filed to respond.
“We are hopeful the Biden administration will do the right thing,” she said.
Biden, who is outspoken about his Catholic faith, has promised to enact immigration reform. He has said he will provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.
David Bennion, Executive Director at the Free Migration Project representing Chavez, wasn’t as optimistic. He said the problems undocumented immigrants face didn’t start with Trump, and they haven’t improved that much yet under Biden.
“[President Barack] Obama said a lot of nice things about immigrants,” he said, “but also deported a whole lot of people.”
Bennion said ICE has carried on deporting people now despite the change in federal power. He said the acting director of Homeland Security released a memo instructing ICE to focus on people who have felonies or are spies or terrorists, but immigrants who don’t fall into those categories are still not receiving the protections for which they are eligible.
“It’s supposed to be a new day in America,” he said, “but for undocumented immigrants like Vicky, they aren’t seeing that yet.”
For now, Chavez is eagerly awaiting the day she can step foot outside without fear of deportation. She said that no matter what happens, she isn’t giving up.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said. “We are still fighting. We are in the church[es] by necessity because we want to protect our families.”
Correction: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 20 • This story has been updated to correct Alina Das’ title and to clarify her thoughts on President Joe Biden’s potential impact on immigration policy.
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