Honduran immigrant feels safe inside the sanctuary movement

By Gabriela Escaleras

Suyapa Reyes, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, had to leave behind everything in her country because of the threat of gang violence. She came to the United States in 2014, but she never thought that life here would still be a struggle.

“In Honduras, I had my own business,” Reyes said. “I had a clothing store that I built by selling tamales or anything.”

When her life was at risk, without thinking twice, she took her two daughters, ages 8 and 2, to the United States in search of asylum.

“Maybe it was not in my plans, but I did it for the protection of my daughters despite [the fact that] I had to leave my two sons with my sister in Honduras,” she explained.

When she arrived in Texas in 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) police arrested her and her two daughters. Suyapa’s father, who resided in Missouri, went to Texas and helped them get released from prison.

They all moved to Missouri, but after three months, she decided to move to Philadelphia while she continued with her immigration case.

“I looked for a lawyer here in Philadelphia, and he has been fighting for my case since then, but we lost in the last court,” Reyes said. “My lawyer explained to me that the judge that took my case was new, and that’s why we lost.”

Reyes used to work as a waitress and assistant cook in a Philadelphia restaurant called Garibaldi. She used this income to cover the expenses of her and her children.

Reyes had been going to her required migration meetings monthly and sometimes every two months, but in March, she received bad news about her case.

“At first they told me I would get a shackle on my foot and asked me many questions,” she recalled. “I felt that something was wrong and after that, they told me I will be deported. They said I should buy the [airline] tickets for my daughters and me, and leave my two sons, who were born here, with somebody or otherwise they would put them in foster care.”

Reyes was surprised they let her get out that day; then, on Aug. 28, she decided to take sanctuary at The First United Methodist Church of Germantown instead being deported and putting her life and the life of her children in danger.

Reyes is one of millions of undocumented immigrants who come to the United States fleeing gang violence or economic problems in their native countries. According to the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services, people come to the United States seeking protection because they have suffered persecution either by race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

However, under the Trump Administration, very few get asylum, others are deported, and others, like Suyapa, have no other option but choosing sanctuary.

The American Immigration Council, a nonprofit organization that seeks to shape a 21st Century vision of the American immigrant experience through research and policy analysis, litigation and communications, and international exchange, identifies two processes to apply for asylum.

Affirmative Asylum refers to a person who can apply through U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services because he is not going through removal proceedings.

Defensive Asylum refers to someone who can apply for asylum “as defense against removal from U.S.” because he is not undergoing removal proceedings.

The U.S. Department of Home Land Security reported that affirmative asylum applications by migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle region comprising Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, have risen between 2013 and 2016. More individuals sought asylum these three years than the previous 17 years combined.

According to their website, The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia “builds community across faith, ethnicity, and class in their work to end injustices against immigrants regardless of immigration status, express radical welcome for all, and ensure that values of dignity, justice, and hospitality are lived out in practice and upheld in policy.”

The organization works to defend and protect the immigrants refuged in churches by doing campaigns, marches, or manifestations to unite society and create a single voice of justice toward the government, especially for those undocumented immigrants who feel they are alone.

Today, while living in the church, Reyes takes care of her four kids, ages 13, 7, 3, and 1; on Sundays, she helps to cook for a church organization that sells food as a fundraiser.

She said she likes cooking and she can prepare a variety of food such as tamales, rice and vegetables, fried chicken, beef and chicken soups.

“The people from this movement give me strength because they do a lot for us,” she said. “Sometimes I want to get out from here or run away, but my children, the ministers, and the movement’s members give me that strength to stay here, so I realize that I am not struggling by myself.”

Reyes added she sometimes wishes she could leave the church without fear of being deported, but she is unsure if she and her children would be safe in Honduras and does not want to leave her U.S. citizen children behind because she is both a “mother and father” to them.

Reyes added that another family from Jamaica is also taking sanctuary at the Church of Germantown, and they all feel secure that no one is going to separate them from their children.

“I’m here for the wellness of my children, and I don’t lose the hope the New Sanctuary Movement can do something for us to continue fighting for our cases and obtain asylum in this country,” Reyes said.

Contact Gabriela Escaleras at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu