The last time Amanda Morales walked outside—breathed the air, observed the sky, felt the pavement beneath her feet—it was summer: August 17, 2017, to be exact. The day was sparkling, the temperature hovering in the low 80s, and if Amanda’s life hadn’t been upended a few weeks earlier by a deportation order from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), she might have spent the afternoon working at the factory where she made guitar and cello strings, or enjoying some backyard time with her three children, Dulce, Daniela, and David. Instead, Amanda and her kids found themselves trekking from their home on Long Island to a 104-year-old Episcopal church in Upper Manhattan with clothes, toys, and a pet fish. The church was about to become their new home.
In moving into Holyrood Church–Iglesia Santa Cruz, Amanda joined a small but growing fraternity of immigrants, mostly undocumented, who have taken sanctuary in places of worship to avoid deportation to their native countries. The operating theory is that the federal government will not arrest people inside a church (or synagogue or mosque). It’s an idea that dates back to the original sanctuary movement of the 1980s, but it’s seen a resurgence in recent years, expanding in unhappy tandem with President Trump’s crackdown on immigrants.
For the past seven months, the walls of Holyrood Church have performed their role well: They have kept Amanda safe. They have spared her deportation to Guatemala, where she fears her life will be in danger from gangs—the reason she fled in 2004—and they have allowed her to remain with her kids, all US citizens. They have surrounded her with a vital community that, under the leadership of the Rev. Luis Barrios, has transformed the church into a rare refuge from an increasingly hostile world.
Still, it has not been easy. Because Amanda cannot leave the church without risking arrest, she lives a life of virtual captivity. She sees the sun only indirectly, filtered through windows. And she has never visited her daughters’ new elementary school. Now that the asylum case she led recently has stalled, a stubborn despair has settled around her. “I’m so worried,” she says of the possibility of having to return to Guatemala. “You know I’d be in danger. It terrifies me.”
Throughout all the ups and downs, Amanda has been brave and generous enough to let us document her life in Holyrood, to capture her attempt to build a new home in a church whose walls may—or may not—prove strong enough to keep her family together. The result is a multimedia series called “Finding Sanctuary,” a story about the consequences of political cruelty, but also a story of resistance and decency.