Facing deportation, woman finds sanctuary in North Philly church

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A North Philadelphia church has become home for an undocumented immigrant seeking sanctuary in the face of a deportation order.

Angela Navarro was born in Honduras, but after more than a decade in the U.S., most of her ties are here. The 28-year-old mother of two says that if she’s deported to her native country, she’ll lose almost everything.

“It would really hard. I can’t even imagine,” Navarro said through a translator. “Because my whole family is here, my husband, my kids, my parents are here. [It’s] hard to make a living wage there, that’s precisely why I am here.”

Navarro is now living in the West Kensington Ministry in North Philadelphia. She’s one of nine undocumented immigrants who’ve taken up residence in churches nationwide over the last year as part of what’s called the “sanctuary” movement.

She says she won’t leave until she wins legal status to match that of her husband and her American-born children. Her days are those of a typical wife and mother, she says – “cooking, cleaning, playing the guitar, sewing” — and she doesn’t spend much time thinking about stepping beyond the church gates.

“Once or twice, that came to my mind for one second,” she said. “Then I come back to reality and don’t get emotional.”

Navarro’s parents were allowed to immigrate legally to the United States after Hurricane Mitch, but Navarro was caught at the border soon afterward, trying to join them. She’s been dodging a deportation order ever since – getting married and having two children along the way — but now she’s hoping that by challenging the deportation order head-on, she can defeat it.

West Kensington’s pastor, the Rev. Adan Mairena, says thousands are in Navarro’s situation.

“There’s so many stories, and they’re all so complicated and unique. Each of them has a human element though. Each has a face and a family,” Mairena said. “Angela’s case is so unique — both her parents came as a result of Hurricane Mitch. She had to leave [Honduras] to be reunited with her family. But now we’re at the point where we want to send her back. What does she have to go back to? She came as a minor. She spent her adult life here. What does she have to go back to?”

Navarro’s story has garnered national attention in recent days, and a number of local politicians have pledged their support, including U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

“I never really thought that was going to happen,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to have a sense that other people are listening.”

But Mairena said the church has also gotten angry calls from people who see her as a lawbreaker who should be deported. He sees her situation as a test of the nation’s compassion and commitment to openness.

“This is a time to ask ourselves, who are we, as a country?” he said. “That’s the big question, especially during the holidays. It’s as if the United States is Bethlehem, in Biblical times, and Jesus and Mary are again seeking shelter and they’re knocking — and we as the United States, what are we to say?”

Mairena and Navarro hope that the ongoing push for immigration reform in Washington eventually helps her win legal status. She says she’s prepared to stay in West Kensington as long as it takes.

But for now, with her case in her lawyer’s hands, she’s focused on Christmas with family. “I already have a turkey,” Navarro said with a laugh. “My family will come — my mom, my sisters. I don’t know what my mom’s menu will be, but I know that like past years, we will be together.”

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