Abbie Arevalo-Herrera sits in the sanctuary of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, where she has been living for more than a year to avoid deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A knock on the locked church doors prompts an unexpected line of interrogation from a congregation member inside: ‘”Who are you? Why are you here?”

It’s hard to hear through the heavy glass and the tone is surprisingly tense for a sunny afternoon on a quiet street outside a house of worship.

The door eventually opens, but only after the person on the other side has verified that the church is indeed expecting a visitor.

Taped to the inside is a list of instructions on how to demand a warrant from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents.

Two months of sanctuary

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond began shielding Abbie Arevalo-Herrera from immediate deportation at the end of June.

Two months later, she’s still here, living in a Sunday school classroom in the basement and making breakfast for her children in the institutional kitchen across the hall, where a sign taped to one of the fridges reads “Abbie’s food.”

And two months later, members of the congregation are still volunteering to guard her and the building 24/7. They also bring her meals, help with childcare and, in recent weeks, untangle school-enrollment issues.

It has not been an easy transition for the church or Arevalo-Herrera. Before she moved in she worked as a roofer and loved the expansive views the job offered. Now she lives underground and she says hasn’t set foot outside since she arrived. She points to a GPS ankle bracelet ICE uses to track her movements.

“I’m afraid. Every step I make, it makes a little dot,” she says. “One time they showed me in the computer how it works.”

Under ICE policy, she is safe as long as she doesn’t leave: Agents don’t arrest people in sensitive locations like churches. The church is one of 36 nationwide and the only in Virginia currently shielding immigrants from deportation, according to Church World Service.

But living in a busy church has presented its own difficulties. There have been arguments with church leaders about the kitchen, about her two-year-old son’s toys, offhand comments that offended. And the church has begun loosening restrictions on who can come in and go, now allowing local police officers in the upstairs of the building, among others.

That’s meant Arevalo-Herrera has been spending more time downstairs.

“Even though the volunteers are helping by asking for identification, I still don’t feel safe,” she said. “I’m so grateful because at the moment that I needed them they opened the doors for me, but I also feel like I can’t be silent about the things that are happening just because I feel indebted to them.”

On June 20, the day Abbie Arevalo-Herrera was scheduled to be deported, members of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond held a press conference and prayer vigil announcing they would shield her from Immigration and Customs Enforcement by allowing her to live in the church. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
On June 20, the day Abbie Arevalo-Herrera was scheduled to be deported, members of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond held a press conference and prayer vigil announcing they would shield her from Immigration and Customs Enforcement by allowing her to live in the church. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Fleeing abuse

Arevalo-Herrera, 31, fled Honduras with her daughter Carmen in 2013 to escape an abusive husband. He still sends her threats and she says her country’s legal system won’t protect her. Convicted abusers are released after a few days with no effort to protect the abused, she says.

“I’ve lived so many violent scenes,” Arevalo-Herrera says, speaking through a translator. “He used to grab me by the throat. He used to slam me against walls. Pull my hair. And my daughter was there witnessing everything.”

She crossed into the United States, where she was intercepted by the U.S. Border Patrol. She said she never had a chance to ask for asylum and instead was given a notice to appear before an immigration court.

It was the beginning of her long, uphill push for legal permission to live in the U.S. Her case was still up for appeal in June when she went to a regular ICE check-in and was informed she was being deported the next day.

“They had plane tickets,” said Arevalo-Herrera’s lawyer, Alina Kilpatrick, a member of the congregation who switched practice areas from criminal defense to immigration law after Donald Trump’s election and the immigration crackdown that followed. She lived full time at the church for a month after Arevao-Herrera’s arrival and still spends the night often.

A spokeswoman for ICE, Carissa Curtell, confirmed the agency knows Arevalo-Herrera is at the church, saying in a statement she “is illegally present in the U.S., failed to report to ICE for removal to Honduras and instead took sanctuary in a Richmond, Virginia, church, making her an ICE fugitive.”

Trump and Sessions’ new immigration policy

Kilpatrick says two decisions pushed by the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions led to ICE’s decision to deport Arevalo-Herrera while her case was still pending:

  • One makes it impossible for people facing deportation proceedings to go through the standard visa process. Since coming to the United States, Arevalo-Herrera remarried and her husband has legal status, which in theory would have given her priority to obtain a green card as well.
  • The other is better known: the decision to stop granting asylum protections to survivors of domestic violence.

“So now she’s just double hit,” Kilpatrick says.

On June 20, the day Abbie Arevalo-Herrera was scheduled to be deported, members of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond held a press conference and prayer vigil announcing they would shield her from Immigration and Customs Enforcement by allowing her to live in the church. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
On June 20, the day Abbie Arevalo-Herrera was scheduled to be deported, members of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond held a press conference and prayer vigil announcing they would shield her from Immigration and Customs Enforcement by allowing her to live in the church. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Deciding to offer sanctuary

Arevalo-Herrera had never heard of the church when she learned of her imminent deportation. Likewise, Members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond didn’t know Arevalo-Herrera when they began considering whether to join a network of congregations that have pledged to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation.

The two big questions church members considered as they mulled the decision was whether they had enough space to take in a long-term guest and what kind of legal liabilities they might face were someone to take them up on their offer, said Alex Gecker, a church member who has been coordinating the schedules of volunteers staying with Arevalo-Herrera.

On the first count, Gecker said the church was better equipped than most — downstairs already has a shower, a large institutional kitchen and classrooms that could be repurposed into living quarters.

As far as the legality, Kilpatrick says they don’t believe they can be charged with harboring a fugitive because they’ve been intentionally open and public about the fact that she’s there.

To that end, to celebrate her arrival on June 20, dozens of members of the congregation crowded into the sanctuary for a combination press conference and prayer vigil.

In front of television cameras, Arevalo-Herrera teared up as she hugged her family and the congregation’s leaders.

Arevalo-Herrera only found out about the church and its offer the day before from an acquaintance in panicked conversations after learning of deportation.

She ruled out cutting off the ankle bracelet and vanishing because she feared she would be caught and immediately sent back to Honduras where she wouldn’t be able to escape her ex-husband.

By staying in the church, she reasons that she can stay in the country without jeopardizing her appeal.

Settling into a routine

She says she was nervous when she arrived, but the congregation’s embrace made her feel immediately welcome.

“To see so many folks there, it made me feel so hopeful,” she said. “There are so many good people. Even to this day they’re still here helping.”

The church’s congregation has contributed thousands of volunteer hours to accompany Arevalo-Herrera. On a recent afternoon, while one guarded the door, another translated the names of salad dressings into Spanish so she could ask Arevalo-Herrera her favorite and bring it for dinner.

The volunteers who stay at the church have all been trained on what Kilpatrick calls “accompaniment,” but the basic concept is they don’t want Arevalo-Herrera to be left alone to answer if ICE agents come to the door.

But the outpouring of support has also been marked by moments of strain that are likely familiar to anyone who has shared a living space, but exasperated by the fact that Arevalo-Herrera can’t leave and she’s sharing the space with a large, busy congregation.

Among the points of conflict: Kids aren’t supposed to be in the church’s kitchen, but she is an avid cook and can’t leave her young children alone. Then there’s the large common space outside the meeting and Sunday school rooms in the basement that has become her toddler’s primary play area. Kids are noisy and rambunctious and tend to spread toys out, despite best efforts to keep things tidy. Church members come and go without warning around them.

“At one meeting in particular, they stated, ‘Why are Latino families not teaching their children to clean up?’ I have a toddler — a two year old,” she said. “I don’t have control of anything. It’s not my space.”

Church leaders did not respond to interview requests about the broader sanctuary program or the issues raised by Arevalo-Herrera. She and her supporters in the congregation said they met recently to begin working through the issues.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” she said.

Embracing activism

Arevalo-Herrera says she misses her old life, including being able to go outside or take her son to the pool. She had planned to teach him to swim this summer.

But she’s also embracing a new role she didn’t expect to take on: that of an activist. She is meeting with others fighting the Trump administration’s immigration policies and holding live chats on Facebook.

“There are so many women that die in our country,” she says. “They are deaths without justice and I feel like I need to start speaking out.”