Christmas will be a little unusual for Angela Navarro and her family this year. They'll still be having the usual turkey and Honduran-style tamales for dinner on Christmas Eve, but the family is celebrating the holiday at the West Kensington Ministry Church in north Philadelphia, where they have been living since mid-November.
Navarro, who is 28 and came to the US illegally from Honduras as a teenager, has lived under the threat of a deportation order for 10 years. But recently, she got the feeling that her time was running out.
“Immigration [authorities] sent letters to my mother’s house saying that I need to go and present myself,” Navarro says in a telephone interview. “That’s how I knew.”
Navarro has a lawyer helping her fight the deportation order, but Navarro and her family are staying at the church in the meantime. She doesn’t ever leave the building, just to be safe. Navarro's husband has been doing most of the shopping this year.
About half of the family’s belongings are in storage. Navarro’s two young kids aren't wild about having to share a room, and they miss their friends from the old neighborhood. Navarro herself quit her job and stopped singing in the choir at the Catholic church where the family used to attend services.
“I gave up a normal life,” Navarro explains.
But the kids are in school, and Navarro’s husband is working. They're all US citizens, and Navarro's parents, who are also from Honduras, also have legal status in the US. This all makes her legal case for staying stronger, Navarro suggested. For now, “I feel better,” she says. “I don’t have fear any more.”
Navarro and her family are getting help from a local group that's part of a nationwide coalition of religious organizations opening their doors to frightened, undocumented immigrants. She's the eighth person to take emergency shelter under such circumstances, according to Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia.
“As people of faith, when we see an unjust law, we have to break it,” Kligerman says. “Obama has deported so many people. That might be the law, but it is in no way respecting the basic dignity that God has given to everybody.”
In several other American cities, immigrants have taken refuge in church facilities, where authorities are hesitant to conduct raids.
“Churches, synagogues, mosques have always served as a place of sanctuary to help keep families together and stand on the side of justice,” Kligerman says, pointing out her own family history.
Kligerman’s Jewish ancestors faced persecution in Ukraine before the Holocaust, so they left their homeland and moved to the US. In fact, they ended up in the very same north Philadelphia neighborhood where Angela Navarro is living now.
“If the US had the same policies toward immigrants that it does now,” she said, “[my relatives] wouldn’t have been allowed in and they most certainly would have been killed.”
As for Navarro, she said she would encourage other undocumented immigrants to speak up for themselves, rather than staying silent in the shadows. And if some people find it difficult to relate to her situation, Navarro said, “please don’t judge us. We’ve come here to work. And God loves all of us.”