The Rev. Luis Barrios stepped out of Holyrood Episcopal Church in Washington Heights on Tuesday morning, Sept. 12, and scoured the street, looking for any sign of immigration officials. Deciding the coast was clear, he summoned Amanda Morales Guerra, who sought sanctuary in the church, to come outside.
Morales’s teeth hurt, she said. A dentist was less than 300 feet away, but could she get there without running into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers? Morales came outside and moved briskly along the sidewalk, flanked by Barrios and two others who had come to deliver cereal to Morales’s children. She walked up two small steps and slipped into the office untouched.
Aside from three dental appointments and a few rallies on the church steps, Amanda Morales has been holed up inside the towering Gothic church on 179th Street since Aug. 17. Instead of complying with an ICE order to purchase a one-way ticket to her native Guatemala, the 33-year-old mother of three sought sanctuary, knowing that ICE typically refrains from enforcement actions in religious buildings.
The experience is taking a toll.
“Although we have received a lot of love, I cannot live a normal life with my children, take them to school, attend to them,” Morales said in Spanish at a rally on Sunday, Sept. 16. “I am locked in.”
The library has no kitchen, so Morales can’t cook regular meals for her three children. And she dares not take them to the mall or to McDonald’s, as she would do in her previous hometown of Massapequa, Long Island.
“I feel like I can’t do anything,” Morales said.
The church has become both sanctuary and prison. During church operating hours, two security guards sit by the doors that separate the family’s living quarters from the main worship area.
Since Morales arrived at the church, an army of volunteers has tried to make life comfortable for her and her daughters Dulce, 10, and Daniela, 8, and her son David, 2. Four bunk beds were set up in the narrow church library. Neighbors donated clothes and toys. Volunteers bring Morales three meals a day, pick up her laundry, and take her children to nearby parks.
The Dominican Women’s Development Center has welcomed Morales into its activities in the church basement, including dancing, exercise and educational sessions. A local yoga instructor has done the same.
Meanwhile, Dulce and Daniela, who were born in the United States, enrolled at the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, where Barrios said administrators let them forego a waitlist due to the unique circumstances. Earlier this month, a school social worker and four of Dulce and Daniela’s teachers visited Morales in the church to tell her about her daughters’ new classes.
Morales has had some trouble eating and sleeping, according to Barrios, and last week she said she hadn’t slept much because two-year-old David — with whom she is sharing a bed — woke up in the night asking for his father, who remains in Long Island.
Morales came to the United States in 2004 from Guatemala, where she says she faced danger from paramilitary gangs that had tried to recruit one of her brothers. She was encountered and released by Border Patrol in Falcon Heights, Texas, according to ICE, and was issued a final order of removal two months later. But Morales was able to reach Massapequa, where she lived with her partner and two of her siblings.
In October 2012, immigration officials rediscovered Morales after she was in a car accident in Long Island. When police asked her for identification, she showed them her Guatemalan passport. Police contacted immigration officials, who arrested Morales and told her to check in every few months and, more recently, once a year.
“[I]n an exercise of discretion, [Morales] was released on an order of supervision to allow her to remain free from custody while finalizing travel arrangements to return to Guatemala,” said ICE spokesperson Rachael Yong Yow in a statement.
Earlier this summer, Morales attended her annual check-in and says she was told to come back Aug. 3 with a one-way ticket to Guatemala. The action seemed to reflect ICE’s expanded enforcement under the Trump administration; in the later years of the Obama presidency, ICE typically did not remove non-criminal immigrants who had final orders of removal issued prior to December 2013.
Morales says she did present a plane ticket to ICE officials on Aug. 3, but they rejected it because the flight had a layover in Miami. She was instructed to return two weeks later with a nonstop ticket — and that’s when she changed her mind. A friend in Long Island gave her a phone number for the New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith network that supports undocumented immigrants in New York.
“She contacted us really kind of at the verge of despair,” co-founder Juan Carlos Ruiz said. “She said, ‘I know it’s not going to be easy, but I do want to stay with my family, whatever it takes.’”
Now, Morales is considered an ICE fugitive. Morales’s attorney, Geoff Kagan-Trenchard, said he has called on the Texas court that issued Morales’s original deportation order to reopen the case, but is awaiting a reply. He also said Morales had requested a “reasonable fear interview” from ICE
in hopes of gaining asylum, but he said ICE officials told him by phone that they planned to reject that request.
Kagan-Trenchard said he has yet to receive written confirmation of a decision by ICE.
On Sept. 12, before Morales saw the dentist, she sat in a small room adjacent to the church library with 2-year-old David on her lap. David alternately whined and played a Mickey Mouse game on her phone. She fed him cough medicine — some of which landed on her shirt — and gave him water to wash away the taste.
About an hour later, while Morales was at the dentist, David cried and tried running toward the front door. Maria Zepeda, the church’s administrative assistant, stopped him and carried him back to his room.
“She’s at the dentist,” Zepeda told David in Spanish. “She’ll be back soon.”
Morales was undergoing a root canal procedure, according to Barrios, and in the few seconds that she was exposed to the outside world, Barrios said he felt scared.
“I feel very responsible,” he said. “I’m not going to let them take her.”
New Sanctuary co-founder Rev. Donna Schaper said that, at her church, Judson
Memorial in the West Village, one man took refuge for 11 months. Schaper estimates that the organization is providing sanctuary to about 10 people in the New York metro area.
Barrios, a longtime activist who brought Holyrood Church into the New Sanctuary movement when he was installed as pastor earlier this year, says he plans to house Morales for as long as she needs. “When the law is immoral,” Barrios said, “you have a divine responsibility to break the law.”
As a religious leader,he said, he sees it as his duty.