Originally published by The New Yorker
Five years ago, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera and her young daughter Marcela waited with a group of migrants on the south bank of the Rio Grande for the right moment to cross the river and enter the United States. They had left Honduras five weeks earlier, fleeing Arevalo-Herrera’s former common-law husband, who had threatened to kill her. Waiting at the riverbank, Arevalo-Herrera struggled with the fact that it was Marcela’s seventh birthday. She had nothing to give her. A man in the group said, “I’m gonna go and see if I can bring a cake, so we can cut it together,” but he couldn’t make it to the nearby town. Later that night, she recalled, he apologized and said, “I offered you a cake, and I wasn’t able to give it to you.” He took fifty dollars from his pocket and gave it to Arevalo-Herrera for Marcela. Soon afterward, Arevalo-Herrera and her daughter crossed the river, and were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents and brought to a processing station in McAllen, Texas.
Arevalo-Herrera is petite, not much more than five feet tall, with dark shining eyes and thick black hair. She recently turned thirty-one, but looks much younger. Last month, I met her in an office at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, Virginia. She wore an orange short-sleeved T-shirt that read “Happy Halloween.” Her skinny jeans revealed a bulky ankle bracelet that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has required her to wear for the past three years. As we spoke, she periodically rubbed her left forearm—the one that her ex-husband, who is also Marcela’s father, used to grab and twist, she said. It was raining heavily, and the damp, she said, aggravates the pain. (In since-deleted Facebook posts, Abbie’s ex-husband denied abusing her and insisted he was a good father to Marcela.) When she and Marcela were first detained, they were still wet from their river crossing and were placed in a detention center that was so cold from air-conditioning that detainees called it the Icebox. “This reminds me of that place,” Arevalo-Herrera said, smiling and shivering in the church office. She went downstairs and returned wearing a gray hoodie.
Arevalo-Herrera and her family have lived in the basement of the church for the past four months. Marcela, who is now eleven, is a sixth grader at a nearby middle school. Last year, Arevalo-Herrera married Elmer Arita, a legal permanent resident whom she met when they were both working at a local restaurant. They have a two-year-old son, Gabriel, who was born in Virginia and is a U.S. citizen. (At Arevalo-Herrera’s request, pseudonyms are being used for both children in order to protect their safety.) Abbie, Elmer, and Gabriel sleep in a converted religious-education room. Marcela sleeps in an adjoining room, which used to be a storage closet.
Arevalo-Herrera came to the United States hoping to apply for asylum. The fact that she and her family currently live in the church is due, in large part, to a controversial Department of Homeland Security practice by which immigrants are given a “Notice to Appear” in court that bears no date or time. In thousands of instances, they are never told when to show up, and are tried in absentia, with few if any options to reopen their cases.
Arevalo-Herrera was processed by the Department of Homeland Security in McAllen, and was given a piece of paper ordering her to appear before an immigration judge. This Notice to Appear provided an exact address—2009 West Jefferson Avenue, Suite 300, Harlingen, Texas—but, where one would expect to see an assigned date and time, the words “to be set” were typed.
Arevalo-Herrera had relatives in Richmond, and she provided officials in McAllen with their address. D.H.S. officials informed her that information about when she had to be in court would be mailed to her there. She and Marcela took a bus to Richmond, where they lived for a time with her relatives. Arevalo-Herrera began working, enrolled Marcela in school, and waited for the notice of her court date. She insists that it never arrived. “I never got any notice,” she told me. On March 10, 2015, she was tried in absentia in an immigration court in Harlingen, and was ordered to leave the country.
For the next three years, Arevalo-Herrera appealed this decision. She continued working and living in Richmond, and Marcela continued in school. She married Arita in March of 2017. In April, after a series of motions to reopen her case, the immigration court in Harlingen denied her request, upholding the notice of removal. She was subject to deportation at any time. Her application for asylum was never considered, because she had not shown up at her initial court date.
On June 18th, with the help of an attorney, Alina Kilpatrick, Arevalo-Herrera and her family moved into the First Unitarian Universalist Church, living in a state of sanctuary. Although ice has radically increased its pursuit and deportation of undocumented immigrants, it has observed a nonbinding agreement not to enter sensitive areas, such as churches and schools. As a result, around the country, at least forty individuals and families have moved into churches as they seek legal remedy for their immigration cases.