On a brisk evening in early December, Amanda Morales’s oldest daughter is perched at the edge of a bunk bed inside a cavernous century-old Gothic Revival church in upper Manhattan. She is just 10 years old, round-faced and shy, and she is writing her life story.
“Once upon a time there was a girl named Dulce. She had a mom who was going to be deported,” the fifth-grader types haltingly in Script MT bold font. “Because of Mr. Trump,” she adds.
Dulce briefly sets aside the family’s laptop—donated only hours earlier—to retrieve a toy ball from her younger sister, Daniela, and return it to their teary-eyed baby brother, David, who had been squirming at Dulce’s side. The small room, which is technically the church’s library, is strewn with children’s clothes and toys.
“Get ready for your shower!” Dulce’s mother, Amanda, calls in Spanish. She’s sitting in the adjacent room with one of the church’s congregation members, Rosalba, chatting about the new bag of coffee their friend brought earlier. Amanda nearly always entertains visitors at this hour, mostly older Dominican women who stop by after work to keep her company during the long evenings.
Too absorbed in her story to hear her mother, Dulce keeps typing. “So on August 17,” she continues writing, “the mom was going to go to New York City to go to the court. But she didn’t go because she was going to get sent to Guatemala. So she decided to go to a church.”
“It’s bathtime!” Amanda yells again. Rosalba enters the bedroom to tickle David. He erupts in high-pitched giggles. Everyone is in good spirits after a stretch of difficult days: Amanda alone on Thanksgiving Day, her kids visiting their father in Long Island; the girls awkwardly navigating a new school; the lack of progress in Amanda’s immigration case; and everyone sick of being cooped up in a church for months, with no end in sight. Hours later, after the children have fallen asleep, Amanda admits: “It’s so hard what I’m living through. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to make it.”
But at this moment, the church feels less like a prison and more like a refuge. Outside, the air has a crisp, late-autumn bite, but inside it’s cozy, the air warmed by hissing radiators. Eight-year-old Daniela leans her lithe body against Amanda’s back and gives her mother a shoulder massage. David crawls into Amanda’s lap and, copying his sister, begins rubbing his mother’s face. The telenovela la Tierra Prometida (“the promised land”) plays on a small television.
“Ah, if every night were like this,” Amanda says, sighing and tilting her head backwards. “I wouldn’t be so stressed out.”
After her massage ends, Amanda wriggles into a pair of Dulce’s stretch jeans and poses to entertain her daughters. The shower can wait.
It has been more than five months since Amanda Morales and her three children left behind their home on Long Island to take sanctuary in Holyrood Church in Washington Heights. The move happened quickly, in a matter of days, after Amanda learned that she would be deported to Guatemala. As she and her kids set about uprooting their lives—packing up their clothes, toys, and the pet fish—they got help from the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, an interfaith network of congregations and activists helping immigrants resist detention and deportation. The coalition searched out a church where the family could live. They procured sleeping bag and other necessities. They connected Amanda with lawyers, who filed for a stay of removal and a petition to open an asylum case (both were denied and are now being appealed).
It was a herculean effort, fueled by nervous energy and necessity. But finally, on a muggy summer afternoon, Amanda and her children gathered inside the church’s sanctuary in front of a barrage of cameras and microphones—publicity, the activists hoped, would help protect her from immigration agents—and became one of the first families in New York City in decades to publicly take sanctuary to avoid deportation.
“I did it for my children,” Amanda says, of her three kids, all born here. “I can’t leave them. I can’t be separated from them.”
The sanctuary movement dates back to the 1980s, when American churches sheltered up to a half million refugees who had fled US-funded death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It was revived at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration, as Congress failed to pass its promised immigration overhaul and ICE began ramping up deportations. The organizing assumption, both during the 1980s and the earliest days of the revived movement, was that the federal government would not arrest people inside a church—a theory that got an official boost in 2011 when the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, made it a policy to generally avoid detaining immigrants in places of worship, designating them “sensitive locations.”
Now, a year into the Trump presidency, the sanctuary movement is growing rapidly. Currently, at least 36 people are known to be in sanctuary—that is, they have gone public with their decision—in more than two-dozen cities across the United States. Many dozens more (or perhaps even hundreds, no one really knows) have quietly sought safety in churches across the country. Some, like Amanda, are fighting to avoid deportation back to the same Central American countries where the US-led regional drug war is unleashing levels of violence on par with the US-funded wars of the 1980s.
But as the sanctuary movement grows, the Trump administration has escalated its repression. In January, one of the co-founders of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, Jean Montrevil, was arrested and deported to Haiti. The group’s executive director, Ravi Ragbir, was detained and only released after a judge’s ruling yesterday. In Colorado, ICE detained the husband of immigrant rights leader Ingrid Encalada Latorre, who is in sanctuary to avoid her own deportation.
“ICE is attacking us at the local and national level,” Encalada Latorre said in a recent conference call with the media.
Meanwhile, sanctuary churches have reported being surveilled by federal agents, and ICE has begun detaining people at other government-designated “sensitive locations,” such as schools. On January 25, in New Jersey, immigration agents arrested two Indonesian men as they dropped their daughters off at school, while a third New Jersey man evaded ICE agents and fled into sanctuary.
On the day Ravi Ragbir and Ingrid Encalada Latorre’s husband were both detained, Amanda followed the news closely, wondering: “What’s going to happen to me?”
For Amanda, the threat of detention and deportation looms just outside the Episcopalian church’s 103-year-old walls. But as much as the church is her refuge, it is also the place where her struggle to protect herself and her family is quietly unfolding. Every day, Amanda has to overcome the anxiety, sadness, and panic provoked by the uncertainty of her future and the family’s prolonged and indefinite confinement. And every day, Amanda and her children—along with the church’s congregation members and neighbors—have to carve out a tiny sanctuary in the midst of an increasingly xenophobic and violent country.
On their first night in sanctuary, Amanda and the kids all slept together on the floor of the church’s library. Amanda’s oldest daughter, Dulce, cried; the old building was big and scary, and she missed her home and her father, who had stayed back to keep his job.
In the ensuing days and weeks, Amanda and congregation members transformed the space, installing bunk beds and elevating the library’s books—The Pentagon Papers, The Final Speeches of Malcolm X—to the highest shelves to make room for the family’s belongings. Volunteers stockpiled the adjacent kitchen with teas and cereals, liters of water and bunches of bananas, a bag of fresh-picked red delicious apples and two lone Kohlrabies, a seemingly extraterrestrial variety of cabbage. A neighborhood group organized a system to deliver hot meals every afternoon: tilapia and roasted potatoes; rice and stewed beans and grilled beef; rotisserie chicken and cooked carrots and hard-boiled eggs. A Salvadoran woman began coming to paint Amanda’s nails. An older Jewish woman washes the family’s laundry. Neighbors offered Amanda free massages and Reiki. A visiting church group once serenaded her.
A congregation member recalls Amanda once commenting at a weekly Bible study meeting that all her life she’s given to others—and now, all at once, that generosity is coming back to her.
In the evenings, Amanda often sits around the kitchen table with a handful of women from the neighborhood. They watch Dominican television host Francisca Lachapel’s comedy sketches, share recipes and health tips, and talk about the latest news, the minutiae of life inside the church merging with the seismic events taking place outside: David had a fever last night; Amanda couldn’t sleep, again; the 10-year-old girl arrested by Border Patrol in a Texas hospital has been released. Yellow roses decorate the table. Daniela and Dulce sprawl out on the sanded wooden floors that were, until recently, covered by dirty old carpet, painting or drawing or building exploding volcanoes by mixing vinegar, baking soda, and food coloring.
But as much as Amanda has found community in her new home—has inspired a group of women to form a community around her—she still finds herself longing to return to Long Island, and her family. During the day, while Dulce and Daniela are at school and David is asleep, she will often spend hours looking through old photos of her life before the church.
“What a beautiful child,” she says, looking at a Facebook photo of her cousin’s 3-month-old son. When asked whether she’s met him in person yet, Amanda shakes her head no. “He was born while I was here.”
On November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected, the company with the single-biggest stock gain was Corrections Corporation of America (now renamed CoreCivic), one of the largest private-prison contractors in the United States. Investors were betting Trump’s campaign promise to launch a new round of mass deportations would create a boom for the private-prison industry. They were right. During the first nine months of 2017, ICE agents arrested nearly 100,000 people—a 43 percent increase over the same period the previous year. In April, ICE awarded GEO Group a $110 million contract to build a new 1,000-bed for-profit immigrant detention center in Conroe, Texas, and it’s now proposing contracting companies to build new centers in Chicago; Detroit; Salt Lake City; and St. Paul, Minnesota.
One of the ways the Trump administration has increased detentions is by targeting undocumented immigrants, like Amanda, who, under President Obama, were deemed a low priority for deportation but who were required to periodically “check in” with immigration agents.
In July, Amanda had her first scheduled ICE check-in under President Trump. She’d been required to attend these check-ins since 2012, when she presented her Guatemalan passport to the police after she was the passenger in a car accident. (Undocumented immigrants couldn’t then—and still can’t—obtain New York state driver’s licenses.)
This interaction flagged her as having an outstanding order for removal, which was issued—unbeknownst to her—in 2004, shortly after she crossed the US-Mexico border and was detained in Texas. At the time, she was 20 years old and fleeing kidnapping threats in Guatemala. Amanda recalls that none of the federal agents gave her a “credible-fear interview,” the first step in the process of applying for asylum. All she received, she says, was a nasty cold—a result of the freezing detention center—and an English-language notice to appear in immigration court. Instead, fearing deportation and unaware that she could apply for asylum, she headed north again—first joining a sister in Maryland, and then settling in New York.
In the years since the car accident, Amanda had attended each check-in without incident. But this past July, unlike during the previous five years’ worth of check-ins, immigration agents told Amanda to return with a one-way ticket to Guatemala.
“I had two weeks to decide what I was going to do,” says Amanda. She had a job working at a factory that manufactures guitar and cello strings. Her children were growing up safe and happy here. Back in Guatemala, one of her cousins had been murdered at the beginning of the summer.
“My friends all asked me: ‘Amanda, what are you going to do?’ ‘What are you going to do with your case?’ ‘What are you going to do?’” Amanda recalls. “And I told them: God has the last word.”
Then she learned from a close friend about the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City.
One evening after the kids had fallen asleep, Amanda watches old YouTube videos of Elvira Arellano, a woman who took sanctuary with her 7-year-old son in a Chicago church in 2006, after being threatened with deportation to Mexico for working as a cleaner at O’Hare airport using a false Social Security number. Arellano was among the first in decades to take refuge publicly, and her struggle helped spark the launch of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, and other sanctuary groups in cities across the United States.
Amanda begins to read aloud the comments written in Spanish below the news clips.
“Look,” she says. “People are saying, ‘This woman comes out of the wall like a cockroach.’”
She continues reading aloud:
“‘Deport her to Mexico’”
“‘Who is this arrogant old woman?’”
“‘Long live Trump! These illegals steal identities and don’t pay taxes…’”
“It’s like this with me, too,” Amanda says.
When Amanda first considered taking sanctuary, she watched Elvira Arellano’s interviews and wondered whether she’d be able to endure it.
“It’s very hard for me to be in front of the cameras,” Amanda says. She recalls the first press conference, only hours after she moved into the church. “I panicked when I saw all the journalists,” she says. “I never imagined it would be like this.”
Since then, Amanda has left the church only a handful of times. Once, she required an emergency root canal. Another time, she slipped out to the church parking lot to feel the winter’s first snowfall. She rarely sees direct sunlight, and she’s never been inside her daughters’ new elementary school.
“I believe, I don’t know, but I imagine I’ve been sick psychologically,” she says. “Being enclosed, I feel like I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m not breathing anymore. I want to scream, I want to feel free, to not have a single preoccupation,” she says.
Even if she wins the right to open an asylum case, and eventually asylum itself, Amanda is unsure of the future. “We’ll see if I can walk down the streets,” she says, “or whether it’ll always be, ‘Oh, you’re the girl that went on television. The one that fought.’”
In November, just before Thanksgiving, a pair of singers visits Amanda, at the invitation of a volunteer. The two men are members of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, which is similar to the Pentecostal strain of Christianity that Amanda subscribes to in her life outside Holyrood Church.
The lead singer, William Castro, arrives bearing chicken from Pollo Campero, a popular restaurant chain that started nearly fifty years ago in Guatemala.
“They say that, before the Campero restaurant opened up here, everyone used to buy it in Guatemala or El Salvador and carry it with them to the US on the plane,” Castro says.
After we eat, Castro and his fellow guitarist begin tuning their instruments.
“I relate a lot with your story because I also came here. I also crossed the border,” he tells Amanda.
He explains that many years ago, back in El Salvador, he learned a song that he remembered while he was preparing to visit Amanda. It was about Joseph and Mary traveling around Bethlehem looking for a place to deliver Jesus and settling, ultimately, on a stable.
“Maria knew that this wasn’t the place where she was going to stay,” he says. “It was a means, a testimony, a mark on history,” he said.
He begins to sing:
If I’m faithful when there’s little
He will believe in me more.
If I’m faithful when there’s little
my path with turn around.
David has been sick all night, and he’s crying and irritable. It takes him a half-dozen more songs to fall asleep cradled in Amanda’s arms.
“There’s something I believe in a lot, and that’s personal prayer and community prayer,” says Castro, as he stops strumming for a moment. “So I want to ask everyone to pray for Amanda, and we’re going to ask God that he flood her with his presence.”
As Castro resumes singing, Amanda clenches her eyes and rocks herself slowly back and forth, David splayed out across her lap. Castro’s voice is earnest, the songs slow and soothing.
“Sometimes it takes time,” Castro says, as he finishes strumming. “But we have to continue believing.”
“You know that we’re human,” Amanda says quietly, “and although there’s faith, that faith can grow faint.”
“Even when it grows faint, one has to rise up and continue believing in God,” Castro replies.
Amanda nods, but she looks tired.
Two months later, in early January, Amanda, Dulce, Daniela, and about a dozen congregations members and their children gather in a small room in the back of the church to celebrate David’s third birthday. He’s a quiet, stout child whose often serious expression makes him look like a small version of a grown man. Amanda learned she was pregnant with him when, back in 2014, a woman gripped her stomach at her Pentecostal church and told her God was sending her a blessing.
Over the last five months, David has grown increasingly clingy, forever grasping at her legs or demanding to be cradled in her arms, which Amanda sees as a result of the uncertainty of being in sanctuary. “He spends all day with me. He never peels himself away from me,” Amanda says. But this afternoon, he seems so terrified by the heightened attention and birthday photos that he ambles around the room on his own, keeping a close eye on the piñata and bags of candy on the table.
The other children—all girls—gather in pairs to play clapping games, which end in a burst of laughter when one girl can’t keep up with the ever more frenetic pace of the claps or the accompanying rhyme. Daniela, all arms and legs and long black hair, is racing around wildly, as usual. Even Dulce, whose voice rarely rises above a whisper, is shrieking.
Everything is Mickey Mouse–themed—David’s favorite. A volunteer fills the piñata with candy and strings it to a ceiling pipe using a discarded Internet cable. The adults set up two rows of chairs, and the children begin parading around them. Daniela clutches David’s hand and drags him into a seat each time the music stops, because, as she explained later, “he doesn’t know how to play.” Finally, only David and their friend Arlyn are left in the game. When the song cuts out, skinny Arlyn with her curly brown ponytail steps aside and lets David plop down into the final chair.
It’s the third birthday the family has celebrated in the church; Amanda turned 34 a few weeks earlier, and Dulce turned 10 in October. Despite the festivities, everyone hopes the immigration board of appeals grants Amanda the right to reopen her asylum case before there’s occasion to celebrate a fourth. Daniela’s birthday isn’t until the summer, and the only thing she asked for as a Christmas gift was that she and her family would be home to celebrate her turning 9.
But this afternoon, at least, the future, with all its questions and uncertainty, weighs less heavily.
“David’s birthday was really fun,” Dulce types a few weeks later on the family’s laptop. She and her sister have just finished eating chicken nuggets, and she’s still sitting at the kitchen table. By now, she is on part six of her life story. “It was fun for them, because the kids felt like they were the ones who ruled the party.”
This is the first episode in an ongoing series about Amanda Morales, her children, and their lives in sanctuary. The authors have been chronicling their story since August, after meeting Amanda through immigrants’ right activists (full disclosure: photographer Cinthya Santos Briones is married to one of the founders of the New Sanctuary Movement), and they have witnessed both the happy moments and the hard ones, the despair and resilience, the frustration and hope. The next episode will feature Dulce’s written story, as well as photographs depicting what sanctuary looks like through a child’s eyes.