NEW YORK —A Guatemalan immigrant who entered a New York City church to seek refuge from immigration authorities said Thursday she will fight to prevent being separated from her children.
As she held her 15-month-old baby, Aura Hernandez spoke to reporters inside Fourth Universalist Society, a historic Upper West Side church, where she has been hiding from federal agents. Hernandez, a mother of two who used to clean homes, has lived illegally in the U.S. since 2005.
"I am not going to keep quiet anymore. I ask all of you to not keep quiet, to defend your rights, the rights of our children," she said in Spanish with tears in her eyes as her 10-year-old son, Daniel, stood by her side. Both of her children were born in the U.S.
Hernandez, 37, vows to stay inside the church until her immigration status changes.
She entered more than two weeks ago after spending two weeks inside another church, where she first sought refuge.
Hernandez is the second immigrant who has publicly sought refuge from immigration authorities in a New York City church. Guatemalan immigrant Amanda Morales entered a church in the Washington Heights neighborhood in August with her three young children.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement's official policy considers schools or churches "sensitive locations" in which enforcement action is generally avoided although may occur "in limited circumstances," like under special orders from a supervisor.
ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow said in a statement that Hernandez was issued a final order of removal in 2006.
"An immigration judge denied a motion to reopen the case and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) dismissed Hernandez's appeal and affirmed the immigration judge's decision," she said.
Hernandez was instructed to report to ICE on March 1 of this year with a ticket to leave the U.S.
"Hernandez did not report as required and is now considered an ICE fugitive," Yong Yow said.
Reverend Schuyler Vogel, senior minister at Fourth Universalist Society, said Hernandez could stay at his church for as long as she needed to.
"Every community matters, no matter where they are from", he told the crowd. "We need to make sure that American values are defended".
Since 2014, at least 70 publicly known cases have emerged of people seeking sanctuary in churches for immigration-related reasons, according to Church World Service, a New York organization that supports the sanctuary efforts. Of those, 51 have come up since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and pledged a harder line on immigration.
Hernandez's son, Daniel, lives with his father, also an immigrant living illegally in the U.S., in Westchester, New York. He spends his weekends at the church with his mother. On Thursday, he walked with several leaders of local churches and members of the New Sanctuary Coalition, a group that helps Hernandez, in a silent protest around the nearby Trump International Hotel & Tower. He carried a sign that read "please don't deport my mommy".
Jeanette Vizguerra, a Mexican immigrant, who took sanctuary in a Colorado church last year and was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the country, stood by Hernandez's side. Vizguerra spent 86 days in sanctuary until she received a temporary reprieve.
"We, immigrants, are suffering attacks under this administration", said Vizguerra. "If Mr. Trump thought he was going to divide us I have to tell him that he has accomplished the opposite"
Hernandez claims that after crossing the border in 2005 she was sexually abused by a border patrol officer but U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesperson responded that a full investigation by ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility, the U.S. Attorney's Office and local law enforcement was conducted and the allegations "were found to be unsubstantiated."
The New Sanctuary Coalition is seeking to reopen Hernandez's case.