ICE ordered her deportation. Instead she’s spent the last year living in a Richmond church. ‘I will not dare to put a foot outside’

By: - July 21, 2019 11:55 pm

Abbie Arevalo-Herrera sits in the sanctuary of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, where she has been living for nearly two years to avoid deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as she seeks asylum. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On the day she was scheduled to be deported, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera took up residence at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, where congregants have agreed to shield her from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Just over a year later, the 32-year-old Honduran woman who came to the U.S. seeking asylum says she hasn’t stepped outside once.

“I will not dare to put a foot outside this church,” she said, sitting at a table in the basement, where she lives with her two children in a Sunday school classroom. “Honestly, I am afraid and as time goes by, the situation is getting worse.”

Arevalo-Herrera is one of two women living in Virginia churches to avoid deportation by ICE, which has a policy of not arresting people in locations it deems “sensitive.”

That has not stopped ICE from threatening both women with huge fines, a tactic they deployed nationwide at the end of last month, relying on rarely used civil code that allows the government to assess financial penalties for evading deportation.

They’ve ordered Arevalo-Herrera to pay nearly $300,000 and Maria Chavalan Sut, who has been living in Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville since September, to pay $214,000.

The notices specially cite the decision to seek “sanctuary from removal.”

Advocates call it an intimidation tactic while Alina Kilpatrick, an immigration lawyer who represents both women, worries it could presage further legal efforts by ICE to remove her clients.

“I don’t even have that amount of money,” said Arevalo-Herrera. “To be honest, I don’t know what else to say.”

Arevalo-Herrera fled Honduras in 2013 to escape an abusive husband she says continues to send her threats. Intercepted by the U.S. Border Patrol, she said she never got a chance to apply for asylum and later missed a hearing before an immigration judge, which she says she was never told about.

Her case was still up for appeal last June when ICE ordered her to report for immediate deportation.

Her plan upon moving into the church was to buy time while her case continued to work its way through the system. But since then, her appeal was denied.

Kilpatrick says all Arevalo-Herrera can do at this point is wait in hopes that either a court hands down a favorable ruling on orders to appear that aren’t served or President Donald Trump loses reelection and whoever wins reverses immigration policies his administration put in place that made it more difficult for her to obtain a green card.

Until then, Arevalo-Herrera says she’ll continue living in the church, where congregants provide security at doorways for her and curtains have been installed in the basement area she lives in to provide more privacy.

She spends her days caring for her children, taking English classes, cooking and corresponding with other immigrants living in sanctuary.

“Right now, I don’t feel like I have options,” she says. “Just to wait for something to change.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.