A few weeks ago, the Fourth Universalist Society of New York City opened its doors to Guatemalan mother Aura Hernández, who took sanctuary to avoid her deportation to Guatemala. Last year, the congregation voted to become a sanctuary church; shortly thereafter, the church was vandalized with swastikas carved into the church’s front doors. On Tuesday night, Democracy Now! sat down with the senior minister of the Unitarian church, Rev. Schuyler Vogel.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive interview with a Guatemalan woman named Aura Hernández, who’s taken sanctuary in the Fourth Universalist Society of New York. That’s the Unitarian church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, overlooking Central Park. She’s there to avoid deportation to Guatemala. She has been living in the United States for 13 years. She’s the mother of two U.S.-born children: 10-year-old Victor Daniel and 14-month-old Camila Guadalupe. She entered sanctuary a few weeks ago to keep her family united as she continues to fight her immigration case.
Today, her supporters with the New Sanctuary Coalition will be holding a silent Jericho walk around Trump International Hotel at the foot of Central Park West and then will proceed to the Fourth Universalist Society, where Aura Hernández will speak out about a secret she’s held for years. She says, in 2005, when she first entered the United States, she was sexually abused while detained by the Border Patrol in Texas. She says the officer who abused her then threatened to come find her if she ever went public about the abuse.
She’s fought for years, quietly, to obtain a U visa as a result of the alleged sexual abuse. U visas are for victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. She says, despite her cooperation with authorities, the Department of Homeland security has refused to certify her U visa, meaning she could not—has not yet been able to obtain protections to stay in the country. So, now, after being forced to take sanctuary to avoid her deportation, she’s breaking her silence.
On Tuesday night, Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener and I sat down with Aura for her first-ever television interview in the church. Democracy Now! also reached out to Customs and Border Protection agency to invite them to join us today, but they declined. Update: See below for a statement CPB sent to Democracy Now! after this segment aired.
On Tuesday night, we first spoke with the Fourth Universalist Society of New York’s senior minister, Schuyler Vogel. He began telling us how, shortly after the congregation of his church voted to become a sanctuary church earlier this last year, their building was targeted for a hate crime.
REV. SCHUYLER VOGEL: Well, a few weeks after we voted, our congregation discovered one morning that someone had vandalized our front doors. Essentially, we have these beautiful wooden doors, and someone had carved swastikas and, essentially, Nazi hate speech on that. And we don’t know for sure the correlation, but it seems like a pretty likely guess that only a few weeks after we got press for becoming a sanctuary congregation, that someone would do that. So, that was really unsettling for us.
AMY GOODMAN: Who did it? Did you find out?
REV. SCHUYLER VOGEL: We didn’t. We didn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Had your decision gotten attention, so that people would have known that you voted to become a sanctuary church?
REV. SCHUYLER VOGEL: It did, in some local—local news media. Ironically, the vandalism raised the profile of the congregation significantly, you know, which I’m sure was not their intention, but it was a way for us and the community to really stand together and say, you know, “This stuff isn’t OK.” It corresponded with a large rise in hate crime across both New York City but also the country. It was a few months after the November election and our president taking office, so there was a lot of feeling that we were entering a new chapter and that it was a potentially scary one, but also that if people of integrity and good conscience could come together, we could really make sure that people were safe and that justice and righteousness were not going to be suppressed.
And so, to have this happen here, in a place that, for us, is also our sacred space, our own sanctuary—we call the inside of our church building “the sanctuary.” And so, to have this place, that we associate with safety, harmed in this way and to have it desecrated asked us to really think deeply about who we are and what we stood for, and made us realize that if we’re going to live according to our values in a time when people were being dehumanized and when our society was in real danger, we had to step up.
AMY GOODMAN: How have the police responded here in New York? I mean, New York City is supposedly a sanctuary city. Mayor de Blasio has said the police won’t cooperate with ICE when they move in. So, talk about what that has meant for you and what it will mean for Aura.
REV. SCHUYLER VOGEL: So, that, we are curious about that, going forward, particularly with Aura. We are going to be reaching out to the police—we have plans to—to make sure that they, of course, are aware this is happening, and also that we are protected as ourselves. We don’t know who harmed the congregation a year ago with the swastikas and hate speech. Presumably they’re still out there. We want to make sure that the congregation is safe, that Aura and her family are safe.
That means that we’re taking precautions. You know, we’re going to be holding a training for ourselves, around active shooter training, in case something like that happens. We know that gun violence is a problem in the United States. We know that people who have a lot of anger and rage and hate towards people who are different than them take it out in these really violent and dangerous ways. So, we are not anticipating that reaction, but we are wanting to be as prepared and realistic about what is possible, and that being a sanctuary congregation involves risk, but that our faith calls us to take risks for justice and for our values.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you allow ICE in or the police in, if they demand to come in to take Aura?
REV. SCHUYLER VOGEL: No, no. My sense is that the point of sanctuary is that we are a sanctuary space. I would say that no sanctuary has ever been violated in the history of the United States. Should they choose to be the very first administration, the very first police force, to break that long tradition of what we consider to be religious freedom—you know, you hear a lot on the right about the importance of religious freedom and people of faith practicing their faith tradition. For us, religious freedom means the ability to decide who comes in and out of our sacred space. We get to decide that. It is not the government’s decision of who decides and how we get to decide to practice our religion.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you willing to be arrested?
REV. SCHUYLER VOGEL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That was senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society of New York, Schuyler Vogel.
Editor’s Note: After this segment aired, U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent Democracy Now! the following statement:
“Following a traffic stop conducted by local law enforcement in November 2012, Ms. Hernandez was arrested and notified she had an immigration issue. In June 2013, in connection with her immigration proceedings, she alleged that during her arrest and detention by U.S. Border Patrol in 2005 that she was assaulted.
A full investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Professional Responsibility, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and local law enforcement, was conducted and the allegations against the border patrol agent were found to be unsubstantiated.
Ms. Hernandez’s immigration case was reviewed by an immigration judge and she was ordered Removed in Absentia after failing to appear as directed by the court.”