The Bulletin

After nearly three years living in Richmond church to avoid deportation, an immigrant leaves sanctuary

By: - March 1, 2021 1:57 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)

A Honduran woman who sheltered in the basement of a Richmond church for nearly three years to avoid deportation by ICE has moved back in with her family in Henrico.

Abbie Arevalo and her lawyer cited new guidelines issued by President Joe Biden’s administration, which allowed her to obtain a one-year stay of removal while her asylum case works its way through immigration courts.

“When I came here, I knew no one and I was afraid,” Arevalo, 33, said in a statement thanking the congregation for taking her in. “Today I am happy to have my freedom but am reminded I made good friends here.”

In recent days, news outlets reported similar outcomes from immigrants sheltering in churches around the country.

Arevalo fled Honduras with her daughter in 2013 to escape an abusive husband, seeking protection she said she could not get from her country’s court system.

She was living in Richmond and working as a roofer in 2018 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents ordered her deportation while her case was still pending. Instead of surrendering to ICE, she joined what was then a growing sanctuary movement, in which dozens of immigrants facing deportation took up residence in houses of worship, which ICE classifies as “sensitive locations” and prohibits immigration raids.

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, 2018, 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)

For the past 32 months, she lived in the basement of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, which converted Sunday school rooms into bedrooms. In 2019, a year into her stay, she told the Mercury through an interpreter that she had no option other than to “just wait for something to change.”

Last month, that change came when Biden issued an order ending the crackdown on immigration initiated by President Donald Trump, directing ICE to prioritize national security and pubic safety when making arrests and directing deportation — a step Arevalo’s lawyer, Alina Kilpatrick, said cleared the way for her to leave sanctuary without fear of detention.

She moved back in with her family in Henrico last week.

“This was the right result. I am grateful to the Biden administration for keeping its promise to immigrant families,” said Kilpatrick, who for a time lived in the church with Arevalo in case agents attempted to breach the church, in a statement. “Abbie will continue to pursue her legal options as a free woman. Her children deserve to have a mother who can hold their hand at the doctor, cheer at their sports games and play with them in the park. Now, they have that.”

Likewise, the church’s executive minister, Rev. Sherman Z. Logan Jr., celebrated the news.

“Oh, Happy Day!,” he wrote. “During the past 32 months, I was impressed with the way Abbie handled her ordeal with grace, dignity, courage and faith. We all could learn a lesson on how to deal with adversity from Abbie, as I most certainly did.”

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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. Contact him at [email protected]

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