A woman fleeing US immigration authorities has taken refuge in a Cambridge church with her two children, making them the first family in Massachusetts known to publicly seek “sanctuary” in a house of worship since religious communities started opening their doors to undocumented immigrants in recent months.
The emergence of a sanctuary movement in the state stands as a rebuke to a crackdown on illegal immigration by the administration of President Trump.
University Lutheran Church near Harvard Square, which welcomed the woman and her daughters on Sunday, is working with eight other groups known as the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition to provide “guests” 24-hour accompaniment, food, and other necessities. The coalition hopes both to offer practical help to immigrants who need time to deal with legal issues, and to make a political statement about immigration policies the group considers unjust.
In recent years, immigration agents have generally not taken people into custody in houses of worship, schools, or hospitals. Trump administration officials say that policy remains in place.
“I’m grateful that, with clarity, we can move forward, because we know people are ready” to help, said Janine Carreiro, codirector of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, which has helped organize about nine clusters of sanctuary congregations across the state. “But I’m also so unbelievably sad that we actually have to activate this network.”
The woman in this case, who is 26, requested anonymity because of her vulnerable situation. She told her story in an upstairs church playroom, speaking in Spanish, and often breaking into tears. Nestor Pimienta and Gabriella Chavez, two recent Harvard Divinity School graduates who have been working closely with the woman on behalf of the coalition, translated.
The woman said a man took her against her will from her small hometown in Ecuador to the United States. She was arrested after crossing the US-Mexico border in 2012 and detained for about a year in Arizona because she could not pay the $7,500 the judge set as bail, she said.
Eventually, however, she was released pending the outcome of her case, she said, and came to the Boston area because a friend lived here. She settled in Waltham, got a job as a cook, found a partner, and had two girls, now ages 8 months and 2½ years. She lost her asylum case and an appeal of that case, according to the woman and her advocates, and was ordered to leave the country by Dec. 20, she said.
Afraid to return to Ecuador — where, she says, the man who forced her to come to the United States is threatening to kill her and her daughters — and terrified of being separated from her family, the woman did not comply.
In mid-May, Immigration and Customs Enforcement knocked on the door of the home she shared with her partner and children. She did not answer, she said, and on the advice of a friend’s lawyer, she waited until the agents left and fled to a friend’s house in East Boston. A neighbor later told her the agents returned to her Waltham apartment two days later and asked to be let into the basement to find her.
“It’s a very horrible feeling to know they’re looking for me in that way,” she said.
An acquaintance who knew of the sanctuary movement put the woman in touch with Carreiro, who called Chavez and Pimienta. Their group, the Harvard SLIC Refuge Community — Student Legal (and Labor) Interfaith (and Secular) Coalition — “tries to walk the journey” with immigrants in need, Pimienta said, “as opposed to looking at it as advocacy and activism.”
They helped the woman get legal representation — a requirement for anyone taking sanctuary at University Lutheran — and met for hours with lawyers as they reviewed her case and considered pathways forward. And they met with her, along with the Rev. Kathleen O’Keefe Reed, pastor of University Lutheran, and Kristofer Rhude, the Harvard Divinity School intern at the church, to learn more about her story and find out whether she thought the sanctuary congregation movement could help her.
“What I heard was the story of a woman who was in an extremely vulnerable situation, a mother of two small children,” Reed said. “It seemed like we had been working as a coalition toward being available to stand with somebody like her.”
For the woman, the decision meant giving up some privacy and some mobility. Though she is free to leave the church at any time, she knows she wouldn’t be safe outside. So she decided to move into the church.
“I thought it was a better option because I wouldn’t have to be out on the streets where immigration could come for me,” she said.
The coalition had worked over the winter to prepare upstairs Sunday school rooms as sleeping and living spaces. As the woman and her daughters moved in Sunday, the coalition leaders notified more than 150 volunteers from the member congregations to begin a rotation to stay overnight with the family, to bring food, and to help with other daily needs.
In addition to University Lutheran and the Harvard student group, coalition member groups include Old Cambridge Baptist Church, the Cambridge Minyan, Congregation Eitz Chayim, First Church Cambridge, First Parish in Cambridge, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, and Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church.
The woman said she was relieved to come to the church.
“I feel very calm,” she said. “I’m also very grateful, it’s very comforting.”
Going into sanctuary brings with it a host of problems, however; her landlord is refusing to let the family break its lease on their Waltham residence, she said. She fears the good credit she’s built up will disappear.
But the prospect of being separated from her family is by far the most overwhelming part of the experience. Her partner misses his daughters and worries about being separated from them.
“I’m just a mother with two kids who wants to have a good life,” she said.