Guatemalans sheltering in US church avoid deportation

Mother and son win appeal against deportation order after taking sanctuary in a Texas church for eight months.

Hilda US Story
Hilda Ramirez spent eight months in sanctuary at a church in Austin, Texas [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Austin, Texas – Reverend Babs Miller addressed churchgoers on a Sunday morning as a group of children sat cross-legged in the corner and played with puppets at the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

Miller appealed to the congregation to pray for people who have lost loved ones before delivering a more political message.

“We also lift up all those who have been displaced from their homes,” she said. “May they find adequate shelter and food, as well as the things that can feed their very souls.”

In the back of the sanctuary sat Hilda Ramirez, a 28-year-old Guatemalan who fled her native country in 2014 with the hope of finding security for her son, Ivan.

Immigration: No Way Out – We the People

At a time when immigration and mass deportations of undocumented people has become a central issue in the US presidential elections, Hilda and her son are a rare example of a successful appeal against a deportation order. 

After taking sanctuary in the church for more than half a year, she was informed by US authorities that her deportation order would be frozen for one year.

But if she is not able to secure asylum or legal residency status before October 2017, she and her son will be back in the same position. 

Hilda, who comes from an indigenous community in Guatemala, never imagined she would end up effectively jailed with her son, who is now 10, in a for-profit detention centre for immigrants and asylum seekers.

Sitting between the pews, Hilda recalled the 11 months – just under a tenth of Ivan’s life – they spent in such a detention centre.

‘My son would cry’

She described punitive isolation, widespread illnesses and denial of medication, among other difficult conditions.

“My son would cry and tell me ‘Let’s go home, mother’,” she told Al Jazeera. “He used to ask when we’re leaving from there.”

After getting out of the Karnes family detention centre in Texas, it was not long before Hilda and Ivan looked on in horror as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out widespread raids targeting undocumented immigrants around them.

Ivan Ramirez, right, spent almost a tenth of his life in detention centres [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 
Ivan Ramirez, right, spent almost a tenth of his life in detention centres [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

“I became panicked. I couldn’t sleep. I was very scared … Every time someone arrived [at my house], I thought it was immigration [authorities],” Hilda recalled.

“I didn’t know what to do and where to go … I would go to the bus station thinking that I need to escape, but I didn’t know where to go.”

With an outstanding deportation order, Hilda scrambled earlier this year to find an alternative, wasting no time before seeking sanctuary in the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on the northern outskirts of Austin, the capital of Texas.

Election season

There are at least four people who have been granted sanctuary in four churches in the US, according to the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership immigrant rights advocacy group.

In 2015, Guatemalan refugee Sulma Carina Franco-Chamale set a precedent for local organisers when she took refuge in the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin before being granted year-long residency by immigration authorities.

In an email to Al Jazeera, Nina Pruneda, a spokesperson for ICE, explained that immigration authorities do not enter “sensitive locations”, including places of worship, educational institutions, medical facilities and protests.

READ MORE: Guatemala drought leaves hundreds of thousands hungry

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has delivered a number of fiery speeches about immigration throughout the election season, taking a hard-line stance at times and presenting his views as more moderate at others. 

During a speech in Phoenix in August, Trump suggested increased deportations among the nearly 11 million undocumented people in the US.

Trump said at the time he intends to deport undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes and others who have overstayed their visas – a group that all together makes up about half of the undocumented immigrants in the country, according to government statistics.

But Robert Painter of American Gateways, an Austin-based organisation that provides legal services to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, argued that Trump’s policy proposals would be difficult to put into action.

“It is not as simple as saying because everybody entered without documentation we can remove them,” Painter told Al Jazeera. “These are individuals and their claims have to be processed individually.”

Yet, while much attention has been paid to Trump’s comments on immigration, deportations reached record levels under President Barack Obama, whose administration deported more than 2.5 million people between 2009 and 2015.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed comprehensive immigration reform that “ends family detention” and “close[s] private immigrant detention centres”, according to her official platform.

‘A lot of fear’

Hilda recalled her long journey and how she ended up sharing a small room with her son in the back of the church. Behind her a massive wooden crucifix is mounted on the wall beyond the pulpit.

“[There is] a lot of fear. It was a very difficult experience,” she said of the dangerous trek from Guatemala to the US, adding she felt “at peace in sanctuary” despite being effectively imprisoned on the church grounds.

For eight months, she did not set foot outside the church’s walls. Had she left during that period, Hilda would have risked being detained by ICE, who tracked her movement with an ankle monitor.

READ MORE: Torn families of Cambodian refugees deported from US

Like many women in Guatemala, Hilda described herself as trapped between domestic and criminal violence as the country grew increasingly dangerous for women.

Along with neighbouring countries Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is part of the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which has seen “a dramatic escalation in violence by organised criminal groups” in recent years, according to a recent United Nations fact-sheet.

The UN says homicide rates are “among the highest ever recorded in the region and are as deadly as many contemporary armed conflicts”. 

Hilda and Ivan fled from domestic violence and widespread gang violence back in 2014 [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]
Hilda and Ivan fled from domestic violence and widespread gang violence back in 2014 [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Already marginalised groups – indigenous people, women, children and LGBT communities – are at particular risk, and the number of female and child asylum seekers from these countries “nearly doubled” in 2015, according to UN statistics. An estimated 190,000 people are internally displaced in these countries.

For her part, Hilda said she fears violence and potential death – either at the hands of family or criminal organisations – if sent back to Guatemala.

Though legal concerns prevent her from describing her life in Guatemala in more detail, she said: “People are just coming [to the US] to protect their families.”

‘Just the beginning’

Pastor Jim Rigby said the church has set an example for other communities of faith in the US, explaining that the move to protect Hilda and Ivan prompted messages of solidarity from dozens of Christian groups and churches.

“I think this is just the beginning … We are just taking responsibility for what our country has done in our name,” Rigby told Al Jazeera, citing the lengthy and often bloody history of US imperialism in Latin America, including a CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954.

Pastor Jim Rigby says the church has taken responsibility for US actions in the world [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]
Pastor Jim Rigby says the church has taken responsibility for US actions in the world [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Rigby argued the coup and subsequent political events set the stage for the present-day destabilisation of the country and the risks that people such as Hilda faced every day.

The freezing of the deportation order “is an unmitigated success for our community”, Rigby said, describing Hilda and Ivan as “the real heroes of the story”.

“We didn’t cross the desert. We didn’t risk everything. We just simply opened our doors – and it’s been wonderful,” he said.

“Look at these beautiful people [Hilda and Ivan] Donald Trump has you afraid of. It’s abject, craven fear – and it’s pathetic.”

Source: Al Jazeera