Vicky Chavez said she was tired and too stressed to sleep during her first night in her new temporary home: a converted classroom in Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church.
Settling into her second night, Chavez told The Salt Lake Tribune through a translator that she’s calmer than she was. She said she’s trying to adapt to her new life within in the confines of the church — a life she said is a better option for her and her two daughters than any they would have had in her native Honduras.
Chavez, 30, was scheduled to leave the United States with her 4-month-old and 6-year-old daughters Tuesday night, but she changed her mind and decided to seek asylum at the church when she was saying her goodbyes to family in Utah. Chavez said she hadn’t considered her options for sanctuary until Tuesday night.
“After thinking of what was in Honduras, and not having a place to come to, not having anything to come to or anybody to take me in,” she said, “that’s when I was really pushed to make this decision.”
Chavez and her now-6-year-old daughter came to the U.S. on a train from Honduras in 2014. They entered in Laredo, Texas, and Chavez said she got in front of a judge as soon as she could to ask for asylum.
In her native San Pedro Sula, which was recently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Chavez said she faced domestic abuse and sexual violence, and that she and her daughter received death threats.
After she asked for asylum, she was enrolled in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Alternatives to Detention program in July 2015. In December 2016, a federal immigration judge in Salt Lake City ordered her removal. She attempted to appeal that decision, but an appeal board denied her request in June 2017, said Carl Rusnok, spokesman for Immigration and Custums Enforcement (ICE).
Chavez requested a stay of removal, which the board denied Jan. 30. On Wednesday, she was ousted from the Alternatives to Detention program, Rusnok said, meaning she’s “exhausted her appeals through the immigration courts and through ICE.”
Yet Chavez and her supporters in Unidad Inmigrante think there’s a chance her case could be reopened because Chavez said she received poor legal counsel for her asylum case. It’s because of that counsel, which she believes led to her case being closed, that Chavez theorizes she was targeted for deportation.
Although ICE focuses enforcement on people who “pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” it says, agents don’t “exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
“All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
In response to undocumented immigrants seeking asylum in schools, hospitals and churches after their final deportation orders, ICE Director Thomas Homan has said, “They get a decision from the immigration judge — most times will appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, then to a circuit court. When that due process is over, that final order from a federal judge needs to mean something or this whole system has no integrity.”
Chavez said she and her children will stay at the church as long as they need to for the case to be reopened.
Chavez announced her decision Tuesday night during a news conference at the church. She said Wednesday that she hopes other people in her position, especially those with children, will hear her story and consider their options.
“I can relate to a lot of single mothers,” she said, “and, as a single mother, you do a lot for your kids and you have to find that strength to come up and do what you need to do for them.”
Although the church congregation unanimously voted about eight years ago to be open as a sanctuary, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith said he didn’t poll members about Chavez.
He said he found out about her decision a few hours before Tuesday night’s news conference.
“We didn’t take a vote on this family, this case,” he told The Tribune on Tuesday. “It was really just, ‘We’re going to open our doors,’ and this family walked in.”
The family has moved into a classroom in the church. There’s a bed, an extra mattress, chairs, a microwave and an area set aside for her 4-month-old, said Fabiola Madrigal, who translated for Chavez on Wednesday. Madrigal is a community organizer with Unidad Inmigrante.
Workers are installing a bathroom in the living space.
Chavez said her goal is to establish a routine for her children in their new lives, which she said is already much different than they were days ago.
For instance, Chavez said she used to spend a lot of time at her mother’s house. Now she can’t.
“We’re trying to keep the normality,” she said. “We’re trying to play with the kids, come up with different games, keep them busy and try to rearrange the way we do things.”
Volunteers have offered to home-school Chavez’s 6-year-old.
With its new residents, the church is also going through changes. Because of insurance purposes — and also for Chavez’s safety — two volunteers will be at the church at all times. They will also help with Chavez’s laundry and shopping.
Those volunteers and clergy are willing to risk arrest to help Chavez, said Kristin Knippenberg, of the Salt Lake City Sanctuary Solidarity Network, which is described on its Facebook page as a group of “SLC faith communities standing in solidarity and providing safety and sanctuary for immigrants.”
ICE generally does not detain people at “sensitive locations,” including at schools, medical treatment facilities, places of worship, places where religious or civil ceremonies are being conducted and public demonstrations, according to its website, though it is not barred from doing so.
In most cases, ICE directs agents to avoid enforcement activities at “sensitive locations” without prior approval from a supervisory official.
There are no laws directly addressing taking refuge in a church, Knippenberg wrote Wednesday in an email.
“The practice could be considered a mild act of civil disobedience in a legal gray area,” she said. “For this reason, we make sanctuary public to the community to bolster social protection and support.”
The “true protections of public sanctuary” are threefold, Knippenberg said.
First, it lets ICE know where the person is, she said, so agents won’t “hunt or harass them.”
Second, it provides protection for the church, based on a precedent in the case law of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The case law says that as long as the church isn’t actually “concealing” someone, it is not in violation of the law, Knippenberg said.
Third, it fosters community support and publicity. “It would look incredibly bad,” she added, “for ICE to arrest a minister or bust down the doors of a church.”
The ministers and volunteers involved in the growing network of supporters are aware that “being arrested is a “remote possibility,” Knippenberg said, and “many are willing to be arrested.”
The network is informing its volunteers of possible scenarios, she said, and allowing them to “decide for themselves what they are willing to risk.”
The network plans to house, feed and support Chavez as long as necessary, she said — for years, if need be. She added that “no one church can shoulder that alone. That is why we are building a network.”
In Arizona, an immigrant woman lived in a Tucson church for 15 months to avoid deportation before returning to her home in 2015 after making a deal with the government that allowed her to stay in the country.
Knippenberg declined to define the size of the network, but she said it includes “Methodist churches, Unitarian churches, and Episcopal churches so far, as well as volunteers from many other faiths.”
Amy Dominguez, with Unidad Inmigrante, said the volunteers and clergy will not be able to protect Chavez if ICE agents come to the church with a warrant for her arrest.
If that were to happen, Dominguez said, volunteers are prepared to “expose what deportation does look like to the public.”
ICE agents would “literally be separating her from her two young daughters,” Dominguez said, “and we will be ready with our cameras. We will be ready to show the world how monstrous it has gotten.”
Organizers have also considered other risks, such as anti-immigration protesters or people who may threaten Chavez. In doing immigration advocacy work, Madrigal said she has dealt with threatening messages before, but now that the public knows Chavez’s whereabouts, advocates are formulating a plan to deal with negative reactions.
“There’s a different sense to take comments seriously, because they could always come and protest in front of the church,” Madrigal said, meaning Chavez’s girls could see and hear them outside.
For now, though, Chavez, who told advocates that she is an inactive Mormon, said she feels safe — and that’s enough for her.
In 2010, many faith leaders signed the Utah Compact, which called for comprehensive immigration reform with an eye toward compassion for undocumented immigrants.
Last week, the state’s predominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which endorsed but did not sign the compact, urged national leaders to reach immigration solutions with provisions for “strengthening families and keeping them together.”
Mormon leaders also called on Congress to protect hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” who face deportation with the demise of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The LDS Church declined to comment on Chavez’s particular case.
But spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement Thursday morning that the LDS Church ”authorizes bishops to provide life-sustaining assistance to church members without regard to immigration status.”
He added that the Utah-based faith “does not seek to interfere with or participate in the enforcement of immigration laws, instead encouraging individual members to pursue all legal means to resolve their immigration status.”
Hawkins noted that the church has “partnered with community and legal organizations to provide clinics where individuals can receive help, including with immigration questions and processes.”
Jean Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said the organization has no official comment on the matter involving the Unitarian church, but she urges its parishes to “provide whatever assistance they can, within the bounds of the law, and to continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform so we no longer have to make these tough decisions about whether to destroy families or send them back to dangerous situations.”
The Red de Solidaridad group has set up an online fundraiser for Chavez.