Guatemalan Mother Spends 1st Month in Church ‘Living in Agony’

Amanda Morales-Guerra, with her son David, at Holyrood Church, has spent one month in sanctuary to request a solution to her immigration situation. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

On Sunday, Amanda Morales-Guerra, the Guatemalan mother who decided to take shelter in Washington Heights’ Holyrood Church with her three children to avoid deportation, marked one month of being locked inside the temple. Political and religious leaders, activists and her attorneys continue to fight to try to persuade immigration authorities to reconsider their refusal to reopen the Central American-born immigrant’s case, but she is beginning to lose patience.

The 33-year-old admitted this to El Diario, and once again called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to give her a chance to stay in the country where she has lived for the last 14 years and where her three children – Dulce, 10, Daniela, 7, and David, 2 – were born.

“This month has been really hard for me. I am honestly desperate from being in here. I walk up and down the church all day praying to God to give me hope, because I am not sure how much longer I will be able to take this,” she said, afflicted. “Please, I ask immigration to reopen my case and see that I am not a criminal, because I want to feel free again and give my children their freedom back as well.”

The Long Island resident, who last month went to ICE offices for a routine appointment and was told that she had to leave the country by Aug. 17, described the experience of being a refugee as agony, but said that she will fight till the end.

“Sometimes I have thoughts, but then I say: ‘If I don’t fight, I will not get anything.’ I don’t want to live on the run or in hiding. I just want this nightmare to end, and I hope that it will end soon and end well,” said Morales-Guerra, as her youngest child wipes away her tears.

The Guatemala native added that, to minimize the impact this experience could have on them, her oldest daughters have been going to school normally thanks to the support of the community and of a neighbor who takes them to and from school.

Against ICE’s word

Rev. Luis Barrios, parish priest at the church where Morales-Guerra has taken shelter, explained the status of her legal process. Even though ICE said that they sent a written response denying her petition to reopen the case two weeks ago, her attorneys say that they did not receive it.

“Immigration does not want to leave anything in writing. They have not sent a letter or anything to the lawyers. We are playing by what they said on the phone,” said the religious leader, adding that they are also awaiting a response from a Texas judge regarding an additional request they filed to reopen the deportation case.

“We are seeking a stay of the deportation order and to have her case evaluated at her level, as she arrived here when she was 19, has three children who are U.S. citizens, files her taxes every year and reported to immigration every month for four years. This is a violation of her rights,” said the priest, adding that this month has been emotionally draining for Morales-Guerra.

“It has been a very difficult experience for her to feel that her freedom has been hijacked, that she is unable to see her family on Long Island. This is traumatic, and that is the human aspect we want the authorities to see. It is necessary to humanize these processes,” said Barrios. He explained that there is no future for Morales-Guerra’s children in Guatemala and that she would be more vulnerable to any kind of crime there for being a woman, as, said the priest, femicide and rape are out of control in that country.

“We believe that we can win the case because it deserves it but, in the meantime, we are hoping that Amanda will not fall into a depression,” said the cleric.

For their part, ICE has not issued any new comments on the case. Two weeks ago, they said that they had communicated with Morales-Guerra’s lawyers to notify them that the agency had denied the application to reopen Morales-Guerra’s case, adding that they had sent her a response in writing.

A symbol of the struggle

Council member Ydanis Rodríguez mentioned that the Guatemalan mother’s case needs to be seen as an example for immigrants and as a call to federal legislators to press on for comprehensive immigration reform aimed at preventing this type of suffering.

“Amanda Morales is a symbol of the struggle of millions of immigrants in the U.S., particularly of those who contribute millions of dollars but are denied their right to legalize their immigration status,” said the political leader. He added that they will continue to insist despite ICE’s refusal to reopen the case, and that they knew from the beginning it would not be easy.

“We know that this is a long-term struggle, but we will continue to do whatever we can to prevent that family from being separated and to keep them united as a family here in New York, their home,” said Rodríguez.

Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, which is supporting Morales-Guerra, mentioned that there are other immigrants taking shelter in churches but have chosen to do so in secret.

UPDATE:

In a story published the next day, El Diario reported that Morales-Guerra received the visit and support of several Hispanic leaders, including Council member Rodríguez, Rep. Adriano Espaillat, Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa and state Sen. Marisol Alcántara.

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