Undocumented mother leaves N. Philly sanctuary to plead for help from Casey

An undocumented woman from Mexico who's been living in a church in North Philadelphia since last December occupied U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's office in Center City.

Updated: 6:35 p.m.

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez’s risky plea for support from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey ended with disillusionment and near arrest Wednesday evening.

Hernandez, 37, and dozens of supporters showed up at Casey’s office in Center City Philadelphia about 9 a.m. They  announced they would not leave until he agreed to offer her concrete support for her immigration case.

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“I came to the offices of Bob Casey to demand that he helps me,” she told reporters shortly before going upstairs to meet with his staff, accompanied by her eldest daughter, Keyri, 14, and some of their supporters. “I know I’m risking a lot, but if I don’t do it like this, perhaps he will never hear me.”

Hernandez, who has a final deportation order from the U.S., and her four children have taken sanctuary at a church in North Philadelphia since December. Leaving the church exposed them to arrest and deportation by federal immigration officers.

On Wednesday, Hernandez waited in the lobby of 2000 Market Street for more than an hour until Casey’s staff brought her upstairs. After talking to the senator by phone from Washington, D.C., Hernandez announced she would not leave the building. Five hours later, Hernandez, her daughter and four supporters returned to the lobby and said they would block the door.

“I feel disillusioned because of him,” she said. “He has publicly said, ‘I support immigrants.’ I didn’t see anything.”

Philadelphia police warned the group to disperse before taking away the Rev. Robin Hynicka in handcuffs. As officers approached her and Keyri, Hernandez yelled, “She is a child! Do not touch her!”

After conversations mediated by her attorney, David Bennion, Hernandez said she would stop blocking the door so he daughter would not have to see her taken into custody.

By 6:30 p.m., the remaining protesters were escorted out by police, and Hernandez prepared to return to the church.

Hernandez and her four children are among more than a dozen people living in churches in Philadelphia, to avoid deportation from the United States. After drug cartels murdered her brother, she said, the family left Mexico in 2015 and petitioned for asylum. In 2016, they lost that case. Facing imminent deportation last fall, Hernandez moved her four kids — Fidel,15, Keyri, Yoselin, 11, and Edwin, 9 at the time — into the George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia in December.

During their time in the church, the kids have attended public school, while Hernandez stays in the church. Bennion has applied for the family to receive what’s called a U-visa, which is available to immigrants who are victims of a qualifying crime and who cooperate with law enforcement agencies. That process can be slow, with the 10,000 U-visa cap for the year already met.

After spending 10 months in what amounts to voluntary house arrest, Hernandez said she is frustrated by what she described as words, but not actions, from Casey.

“If they deport me, it’ll be his fault because he did not meet the demands I’ve been asking of him,” she said.

In response, Casey’s office issued a list of actions the senator has taken to support her case.

“Over many months, I have advocated on the family’s behalf with top officials in the administration,” said Casey, in a statement.

The statement also indicated that introduction of a private Senate bill does not automatically stall deportation, as it once did.

Hernandez and her attorney said they’re not sure what Casey has done and whether it has made any difference in her case.

At the end of a long day, Hernandez and her daughter walked out into the gathering darkness, back to the church for another night in sanctuary.

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