After Obama’s immigration action, a Honduran woman living in a Philadelphia church waits


Angela and Arturo get up everyday and head off to school, but unlike other kids, their home is a church in North Philadelphia.

Their mother, Angela Navarro, took refuge last week in the West Kensington Ministry, a Presbyterian church, turning a church playroom into a makeshift bedroom for her children and cooking meals in a communal kitchen.


The hardship is better than the alternative: a threat of deportation that could tear her family apart.

A Honduran immigrant, Navarro took a drastic decision and sought sanctuary in the church with her husband and two kids to avoid deportation. Navarro, 28, fled Honduras for the United States in 2003 to escape poverty and violence, but was caught crossing the border from Mexico into Texas. She was allowed to travel to Philadelphia while she awaited her court date and was eventually issued a deportation order.

Over the last 10 years, she has laid low in Philadelphia, trying to avoid immigration officials. Even though she constantly worried about being caught, Navarro managed to work, most recently as a cook, and got married.

“I’m taking sanctuary because I want immigration [authorities] to stop my deportation so I can live without fear, to live free and do what other people do," Navarro said in Spanish.


Angela Navarro plays guitar on Nov. 21, 2014 inside the West Kensington Ministry Church in Philadelphia, PA. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)


Churches have again become safe havens for undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation. Federal immigration officers and agents are instructed not to enter "sensitive locations," such as churches and schools, to carry out enforcement actions.

The original sanctuary movement began in the 1980s, when a flood of Central Americans came to the U.S. to escape civil war and political unrest. Few of those immigrants were granted asylum; instead, they were subject to deportation.


Religious organizations saw what they considered an injustice and began offering people safe haven in their churches. At the height of the movement, 150 congregations had joined together to protect immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The movement returned this year, in a smaller incarnation. Eleven immigrants have entered churches across the country hoping to avoid being deported. Of those, three people have been granted some form of deportation relief.


The eight other cases are still pending, according to Church World Service. The heart of the movement has been in Arizona, but immigrants have also sought refuge in Portland, Denver, Chicago, and now Philadelphia.

Navarro says she feels safe now that she is living in the church. She isn't afraid of immigration officials, but she has put herself in a self-imposed house arrest, no longer working, or even walking outdoors for fresh air.


"It’s very hard, but to see that my case might have a solution is not as hard as living for 10 years in fear of being deported," she said.


Angela Navarro with her children, Angela (left) and Arturo (right) on Nov. 21, 2014 in the West Kensington Ministry in Philadelphia, PA. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)

On Nov. 20, just days after Navarro and her family entered the church, President Obama announced he would grant a temporary deportation reprieve to an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants. Navarro may qualify for a new program that would allow some people with U.S.-born children to obtain work permits if they register with the federal government, pass a background check, and pay their taxes.


Even if Navarro is granted deportation relief, her supporters hope the act of taking sanctuary will raise awareness about broader struggles among immigrants.

A spokesperson at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not comment on Navarro's case due to privacy restrictions.


"We still have a long road to go to end all deportations and to address the root causes of why people come here in the first place," said Nicole Kligerman, of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. "For Angela, while it's possible that she'll be covered by Obama's policy, it's not a lasting solution, a temporary status of three years is not the same thing as a citizenship."

Despite the new federal policy, Navarro says she is afraid she won't qualify because of her existing deportation order.


"I'm not 100 percent sure, there's a possibility [that it will help me], but as I’ve said that doesn’t make me completely happy, because I'm not here to just fight for myself but instead to fight for all immigrants," said Navarro.


Rev. Adan Mairena, the pastor at the West Kensington Ministry Church, where Angela and her family are taking sanctuary. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)

However, for Navarro and her family it remains a waiting game. She says she won't leave until her deportation order is rescinded.


"I'm not sure how long I'll be here, but I'll be here however long necessary," she said.

Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.

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