WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, Manhattan — A Guatemalan immigrant with no authorization to live in the U.S. entered a church in Manhattan with her three children on Thursday to seek refuge from immigration authorities.
Amanda Morales, who has lived illegally in the U.S. since 2004, said she decided to seek sanctuary instead of showing up to her appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Morales said ICE told her during her last appointment this month that she would be deported and needed to buy a one-way plane ticket to Guatemala.
"I am scared, but at the same time I feel safe here," she said during a press conference at Holyrood Church, in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
Her children, Dulce Carvajal, 9, Daniela Carvajal, 8, and David Carvajal, 2, all U.S. citizens, stood by her side as city and federal officials spoke to reporters. They said they plan to formally request a stay of her deportation so the children are not separated from their mother. They also said that Morales would not leave the church until her situation is solved.
"ICE should not come here. They will not come here," said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY). "They want to send people back to get hurt. We say no".
Under President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration, detentions of non-authorized immigrants rose 37 percent over the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2016. The administration says it is focused on those with criminal records, but the number of detainees who do not have a criminal history has more than doubled.
The 33-year-old immigrant said she left Guatemala fleeing violence. Since then she has worked and regularly showed up to her ICE appointments, except on Thursday, she said.
"What I want is to stay in this country with my children so they are not left alone, helpless", she said to reporters.
ICE considers schools or churches "sensitive locations" in which enforcement action is generally avoided although may occur "in limited circumstances," like under special orders from supervisors, ICE's website says.
An ICE spokeswoman in New York said she could not provide information about someone who is not in ICE custody.
Father Luis Barrios, of Holyrood Church, said that any immigrant who needs sanctuary will be taken in by the church.
"We cannot be indifferent to human suffering", he explained.
Holyrood belongs to the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC, an interfaith network that helps immigrants.
It is not clear how many immigrants are currently living in churches as a way to hide from immigration authorities but several cases have been reported. About 800 churches in the U.S. have agreed to be sanctuaries, up from about 400 a year ago, according to Church World Service, an organization that helps immigrants obtain legal status in the U.S.
In Austin, Texas, Hilda Ramirez and her son Ivan, who is 11, have been living in Saint Andrew's church for just under two years, said pastor Jim Rigby.
Jeanette Vizguerra, a Mexican mother of four who lived in Denver churches for 86 days to avoid deportation, left sanctuary in May after being granted a nearly two-year stay of deportation.
At Holyrood, volunteers will be accepting donations of food and supplies for Morales and her family.