Behind the doors of the downstairs room, they have placed a mattress on the floor and piled blankets on top. In a nearby child center room, her 2-year-old son grabs a toy car and bangs it against the shelf. Manuel Areta then toddles over to her, throwing his head back to cry. His mother hoists him into her lap.
This is where Abbie Arevalo-Herrera slept Tuesday night, and where she, Manuel and her 11-year-old daughter now live. They will stay here indefinitely — 24 hours a day, perhaps for years — to avoid Arevalo-Herrera’s deportation back to Honduras. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond has offered them sanctuary, becoming what advocates said was the first known case in Virginia of a church taking in someone under the designation.
The 30-year-old's decision to seek sanctuary as President Donald Trump’s administration faces a firestorm of criticism in another immigration matter: its policy of separating children from their parents when they are found illegally crossing into the U.S. On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order designed to keep families together.
The congregation at First Unitarian Universalist Church decided in January to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation.
“We are privileged as a congregation to open our doors to the stranger. To bear witness. To welcome. To practice radical hospitality, because what it says in Jewish Scriptures: ‘You yourself were once strangers in this land,’” said the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, who is senior minister at the church near Byrd Park.
Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswomen for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Wednesday that “religious centers” fall under “a sensitive locations policy” where Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not perform enforcement actions unless there are extenuating circumstances such as a risk to public safety. Cutrell said Arevalo-Herrera became an ICE fugitive Wednesday when she didn't report to ICE for removal to Honduras.
For Arevalo-Herrera, the church was the safest place she could think of and her last hope. Deportation, she said through an interpreter Wednesday, will mean separation from her two children in the U.S. She also is afraid that she will be killed by the father of the child she left in Honduras, she said.
“They are the reason I fight every day. It’s the only thing I want because I already lost one child,” she said.
She left Honduras four years ago, leaving her infant daughter with her mother. She feared her daughter wouldn’t survive the monthlong journey to the U.S., where she at one point ran for miles from people the group thought were cartels. The girl is now 5.
If Arevalo-Herrera had stayed any longer in Honduras, the girl’s father would have killed her, she said. He punched her the first time when she was six months pregnant, she said. He would routinely scream at her and threatened to take the baby once she was born.
“I’d rather run away because I was thinking that he would maybe kill me because he tried all the time to kill me,” she said.
An ICE official said she was first encountered in December 2013 by the U.S. Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She didn't appear for her March 2015 immigration court hearing, and an immigration judge issued a final order for removal, an ICE official said. Arevalo-Herrera said she never received notice of the hearing.
Arevalo-Herrera has worn an ankle bracelet so that immigration officials can keep track of her since she reported to ICE custody in April 2015, and was enrolled in the agency's Alternatives to Detention program.
She continued to live as an undocumented immigrant and her attempts to reopen her case failed, she said. An ICE official said she filed a stay of removal and a motion to reopen her case, but an immigration judge and ICE denied both actions in July 2015.
Over the next several years, she married a permanent legal resident she met while working in a restaurant. He was interested in her, but because of what she experienced in Honduras, she at first had no interest in a relationship, she said. It took time for her to realize that he was kind, and respectful, she said.
Before coming to the church, she worked with him at his roofing business. The couple had a son, Manuel, two years ago. He is a U.S. citizen.
Still, the threat of deportation hung over her. An immigration judge denied her request to hear her case on April 19, said her attorney, Joseph Zurita, who is with a Falls Church-based law firm.
The next month, she filed an emergency stay request and an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals, an ICE official said. Her case is still under appeal, but, at the same time, the board denied her request for emergency stay.
Advocates believe Arevalo-Herrera’s removal orders accelerated following a ruling this month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying that domestic violence generally is not grounds for asylum in the U.S. They expect that ruling to have a broad impact on immigrants from Central America, from many immigrants in the Richmond region arrive.
As recently as a month ago, the man in Honduras threatened her, Arevalo-Herrera said.
Several volunteers will be sleeping on a mattresses not far from Arevalo-Herrera’s bed in conference rooms of the church, partly to watch the church's doors and partly to make sure she is never alone.
Arevalo-Herrera wiped away tears Wednesday as she watched her son pull toys off the shelves, still carrying a stuffed animal of a rainbow-colored worm.
He will sleep with his mother on the church property each night, as will his 11-year-old sister. Soon, he will play football with his dad outside on the church lawn. But he won’t go farther than the church’s property line, careful not to stray too far from his mother.