NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A housekeeper and mother of four who has secured sanctuary inside a church says she’s comfortable being a symbol in the push to change immigration laws.
Nury Chavarria says she’s unsure how long she’ll stay at Iglesia De Dios Pentecostal church in New Haven. She sought refuge there last week rather than obey a U.S. immigration order to leave her home in Norwalk and board a flight to Guatemala, where she hasn’t lived for 24 years.
A lot of Hispanics are in similar situations, she said.
“I’m here to raise my voice to tell we are not criminals,” she told The Associated Press during an interview inside the church Monday. “We are people, hardworking, who came to this country to get a better life.”
Chavarria is among at least 13 people across the United States living in churches to avoid deportation, according to Church World Service and the Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice Center for Community Change.
She says she needs to stay in the United States for her children, all U.S. citizens. The children range in age from 9 to 21, and the oldest has cerebral palsy.
Chavarria is living with her youngest, Hayley, in a converted Sunday school room inside the small annex of the church. The bathroom is through a common room, near the church’s sanctuary. There is no real shower, though a plumber has volunteered his time to make one.
Relatives are caring for Chavarria’s other three children, including her oldest, Elvin.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, Khaalid Walls, said the agency considers Chavarria a fugitive but has a policy to avoid conducting enforcement activities inside sensitive locations, such as churches.
There are about 800 churches in the U.S. that have agreed to be sanctuaries, up from about 400 a year ago, said the Rev. Noel Anderson, the grassroots coordinator for the sanctuary movement with Church World Service. The group is holding a national meeting in Austin, Texas, this week to discuss strategies for what it sees as a growing need.
Iglesia De Dios is among three churches in Connecticut that have agreed to open their doors in certain deportation cases, said the Rev. Hector Otero, the church’s pastor.
The idea came up during an interfaith service last Thanksgiving with other religious leaders from the area who had been discussing the recent presidential election and what it might mean for New Haven’s immigrant and refugee population, he said.
That led to a larger meeting in February with national sanctuary organizers from 40 churches and synagogues across Connecticut. All of those institutions agreed to help in some way, such as accompanying people to immigration hearings, said Rabbi Herbert Brockman, with Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden.
Otero said his church planned for months to become a sanctuary, getting legal advice and making other preparations. It developed detailed criteria. It will not, for example, accept anyone who has a criminal history.
He said people have threatened to burn his church and have him arrested for harboring a fugitive.
“We don’t want to do anything that is against the law,” he said. “In this case, we do the right thing.”
Chavarria acknowledges defying a deportation order in 1999, but she has checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement yearly since 2009. During each visit, she was given a deferral and a work permit, until last month. This time, she was fitted with an ankle bracelet and ordered to get on a plane by July 20.
She said she was given no explanation.
“I was in shock,” she said. “My daughter, Haley, was with me at the time. We both cried, a lot.”
She does not consider herself a fugitive. She still wears her ankle bracelet and said immigration officials know where she is but have not contacted her.
With President Donald Trump’s administration, Anderson said, “the patterns are not very clear to us as to when ICE uses its discretion to let people stay and when they don’t.”
Chavarria said she understands it could be months before she can leave the church. But, she is hopeful that support from people such as Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Connecticut’s two U.S. senators will prompt ICE to take another look at her case.
Brockman called her “the poster child for why not to have this deportation policy.”
“It just does not make a lot of sense,” the rabbi said. “Why with all these drug dealers and gang members out there, why pick on her?”
As for the Republican president?
“I would say to him, ‘I am not a criminal,’” Chavarria said. “I want to tell him (to have) compassion for us.”