After 554 days living in sanctuary at a Philadelphia church, Honduran mother Suyapa Reyes finally received her freedom last month after federal immigration officials granted her a stay of her deportation order. Reyes had been living at First United Methodist Church of Germantown with her four young children since September of 2018. Reyes has now received a grant of deferred action, which will allow her to remain in the United States and get a work permit. Reyes has been living in Philadelphia since 2014, after she fled from her home country of Honduras with her two oldest children. Her other two children are U.S. citizens. We speak with Suyapa Reyes and Blanca Pacheco, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement Philadelphia.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. After 554 days living in sanctuary in a Philadelphia church, Honduran mother Suyapa Reyes finally received her freedom last week, after federal immigration officials granted her a stay of her deportation order. Suyapa had been living at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown with her four young children since September of 2018. She has now received a grant of deferred action, which would allow her to remain in the United States and get a work permit. Suyapa has been living in Philadelphia since 2014, after she fled from her home country of Honduras with her two oldest children. Her other two children are U.S. citizens. Currently there are two other families taking sanctuary in Philadelphia, which itself is a sanctuary city.
For more, we go to Philadelphia, where Suyapa Reyes joins us, along with Blanca Pacheco. She is co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Suyapa, how does it feel to be free, to be able to step foot outside of the church where you’ve taken sanctuary for about a year and a half?
SUYAPA REYES: [translated] I feel very happy, because the victory that I was hoping for came. The victory I was hoping for came, and we won the ability to all be together, me and my children. The sad thing was that I might be separated from my children. And now I feel happy, like a bird in flight with my wings wide open, being able to do what I was missing when I was in the church.
AMY GOODMAN: Suyapa, can you tell us your story? Tell us how you ended up in the United States, why you took refuge with your four children in the Germantown, Philadelphia, church.
SUYAPA REYES: [translated] In 2018, in March of 2018, they put the ankle bracelet on my foot. I was going to an appointment at ICE, when they began asking me many questions about my children’s father. They asked any number of questions.
Then the man came in and said, did I know that I had to use an ankle bracelet? And I said, “No.” He came, and after he put the bracelet on, he said, “You have deportation. You have to get the passports of the two daughters you brought with you, and you have to find the father of your two boys, to leave them with him. And if not the father, you have to find relatives to leave your two sons with.” And I said, “That cannot be. I am the mother and father for all my children.”
I told him, “What crime did I commit that they’re going to put this bracelet on me?” And he said, “No, you have to wear this until you leave the country.” And I told him, “I’m not going to leave the country, because I have to fight for my children, who were born here, because they have no future at all in my country. I came fleeing,” I told him, “from death, and I can’t go back to my country now.” “I don’t know how you’re going to do it,” he said. “You have to find the relatives of your two sons, and you have to leave the country.”
The one who affixed the ankle bracelet to me treated me very poorly. I left there crying. I got home. I felt the life emptying out of me. And that’s when I called my lawyer. I told him, “They’re going to deport me.” And he said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to see what we can do.” That’s when he got a stay order. And that’s when they put the deportation back about two months.
In June, again, they said that I had to be deported, I had to leave the country. And now it was true. I continued going to appointments at ICE. The last time was August 27th. That’s the last time I went to ICE. But I had already sought where to take shelter. I sought out Blanca so she could help me find a church, a refuge, a shelter, because I didn’t want to abandon my children, and I didn’t want to go back to my country. That would have been such a setback. So, the next day, I had to go to the church. Everyone supported me — the lawyer, Blanca, Peter. Many people were with me, supporting me, so I could get to the church. And that’s how I was able to get into the church and be there together with my children.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you tell us the day that you heard you would be able to leave the church, after over 550 days? Where did you get the news? And how did you and your children respond?
SUYAPA REYES: [translated] That was the best news I received. It was on February 14th, when Blanca came, others came, Peter also, and they said, “Suyapa, we won.” And I said, “How can that be?” And they told me, “Yes, we won.” And I said, “That cannot be. I don’t think so. It must be a lie.” And so she called the lawyer so he could confirm it for me.
And why did I think this? I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a lie because at 11 a.m. the lawyer had been with me that day, and he told me, “We are hopeful, but we don’t know how long it might take to win.” We were with the other family, the family of Carmela Hernandez, and the lawyer said, “We don’t really know when we might win. It might be a month. It might be five years, 10 years. We don’t really know. But we’re going to win. We just don’t know when.” And that’s why I didn’t believe it when Blanca told me.
But after that, I cried. I jumped up and down, after realizing that the news was true. I was running about, and I called my older daughter, who was at work. She was so happy, and she was telling me she was so happy, she wanted to leave work. And she was telling me she was so happy that I was going to be able to leave the church, that I had won my case. And even though there have been many barriers, many deserts, I’m able to achieve what I’m achieving today to have my family together. But yes, it can be done.
AMY GOODMAN: [Blanca] Pacheco, you have been working with Suyapa and her family as the co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. Can you talk about how you got involved and what exactly this legal decision is?
BLANCA PACHECO: Yes. So, we got involved because we have worked for years in collaboration with a lawyer from Free Migration Project that had been representing Suyapa prior. He reached out because we had offered sanctuary to other families in the past, and we work with congregations in the city. So he reached out, explained the problem that Suyapa had, and we called a community meeting with members from the organization to make a collective decision, because offering sanctuary is really hard and it requires a lot of organizing. So, that’s how we met Suyapa. She came, and she presented her case to our membership. And then our membership made a decision of offering sanctuary to her, because, for us, it’s like when someone comes to our door and says, “If I get deported, I’m going to literally be killed,” we have an obligation to respond with bold action, and sanctuary is one of those actions that we were able to support Suyapa taking it.
And what she had won is that Suyapa had a pending U visa application, because she was a victim of crime. And since the U visas are taking a long time because there’s a cap on the number of U visas that are being granted, she was granted deferred action while U visas become available, so she will be able to — she already applied for a work permit. She will be able to get her Social Security and work legally and renew that work permit over and over until a U visa becomes available for her.
AMY GOODMAN: Suyapa, can you talk about what that community meant for you, and how you ended up in Philadelphia with your children?
SUYAPA REYES: [translated] I was in Missouri, but, after that, I ended up in Philadelphia, because — well, it’s sad for me to talk about this, because it was at the hands of my father the first time. My father took me in when I was in Texas. Then he threw me out. He first took me in at his house. I was there for three months. Then my father wanted to deport me and take away my two daughters. That’s why I came to Philadelphia. A cousin of mine helped me come to Philadelphia.
Well, as for the people who have been around me, from the church, different groups, helping me with my children, taking them to school or to see the doctor, well, for me, it’s been like my own family. That’s how I feel, because they have been with me at all times. And we had dinners the last Friday of every month. And with the money we collected, well, that’s how we’ve been getting by. And with that, we’ve been able to buy the things we’ve needed. And everyone who’s been with me supporting me has told me, “Suyapa, you can do it. You can struggle for your children, just as you came to this country with your daughters.” And this got me to lift myself up, because, well, it’s been very tough, but people would tell me, “You can, and you have to struggle for your children.” And this is what would get me to stand up and say, “Yes, I can.” And I’ve been able to do it. And I will continue to do it as long as I have my children by my side.
AMY GOODMAN: Suyapa Reyes, can you talk about why you left Honduras and when you left?
SUYAPA REYES: [translated] My oldest daughter came here before I did, and she also came to the United States fleeing the violence in Honduras. It’s very tough to talk about her story. She was just a little girl when a man wanted to sell her in Mexico. After that, I rescued her. She came back to Honduras, but he was always following her. When she was out and about running errands, she told me that she would spot him. So I called an aunt who lives in the United States to see if she would help me get my daughter out of there. That’s when my daughter came to the United States. She was 15 years old.
After that, one of my brothers came. He got caught up with the Zetas, and he borrowed some money. Then my stepfather told me that I needed the money to continue my clothing business in Honduras, for I was alone there, as well, a single mother. And I would struggle with my children, selling tamales or whatever. Then I opened a business selling clothes, which I was able to get by with, thanks to God. And when I told my stepfather to pay me the money he owed me, well, he was associated with some drug traffickers. And that’s when he threatened me, and he threatened that he would pay me back, but by killing me and my children.
And that’s why, from one day to the next, I was able to take off, leaving behind two of my children, my boys. I left them with one of my sisters. It was very tough for me to just take my two small girls, leaving behind my sons. But yes, it was tough for me, and I really can’t get over it to this day, having my two boys there. But I have faith that one day we will all be here together. And that’s how I was able to leave my country. And that’s why I’m afraid of returning to my country, because I know that when I go back, someone is waiting there to take my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Suyapa, what are your plans now?
SUYAPA REYES: [translated] Well, my plans are to finally bring my two sons here from Honduras, as well as to keep supporting my kids who I have here. I’ve always liked business. I don’t know what plans will come from God, because it’s always God first. Work and struggle to see what I might be able to do, perhaps set up some business. I don’t know. That’s always been my dream. My dream has been to struggle with some business. I’ve always been a fighter when it comes to business.
AMY GOODMAN: Blanca, can you talk about the other two families? Because Suyapa Reyes’s family is not the only one in the Germantown church. Talk about the situation of the other two, who have also been there for quite some time.
BLANCA PACHECO: Well, one of the families entered with Suyapa, and they’re still fighting their case. They have legal options, and we hope that — it’s a matter of time of when they will win. They have been living in the country for 15 years. Actually, they were living legally until the Trump administration decided that they will not allow people to continue renewing their work permits. So, they continue to fight to get their green cards approved and filed and approved.
And with Carmela Apolonio living in sanctuary, she has been in sanctuary over two years. And one of the things that — she also applied for a U visa. And we see that ICE is — ICE and USCIS are retaliating against women who are taking sanctuary. In Carmela’s case, she filed an appeal on her U visa more than a year ago. And that’s more than half time past where they are supposed to approve the case. And just a week ago, we discovered that the Office of Administration Appeals actually lost part of her file. And we are asking them to grant her case in an expedited way, because they made a mistake that has Carmela living in sanctuary for more than a year after she filed this appeal. So, we are hoping that Carmela also wins very soon, because USCIS made a mistake, and they lost their file. And if we didn’t pressure with legislators and people reaching out and organizing, we wouldn’t have even discovered that. So, Carmela has four children. She’s living with her four children. She’s from Mexico, and the other family is from Jamaica and has been living in First United Methodist Church, and both families are fighting for their cases, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Suyapa Reyes, what message do you have for the Trump administration?
SUYAPA REYES: [translated] Well, I have practically no words to say. But I could tell him that what he is doing is unjust, separating families, and that he should look to his conscience if he has children of his own. He should think from the heart and not separate families.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both so much for being with us. Suyapa Reyes, congratulations on being able to leave the Germantown church with your four children. And, Blanca Pacheco, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, thank you for being there, as well. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.