Undocumented Mexican Family Finds Sanctuary Inside Black Church in North Philadelphia

After three of her relatives were gunned down by narco traffickers in Mexico, Carmela Hernandez packed up her four children and headed to San Diego. She voluntarily presented herself to border agents and begged for asylum.

Instead of receiving it, Hernandez and her kids were detained for three days in 2015. She was given an ankle bracelet to track her every move and sent to join relatives in Pennsylvania pending an asylum case.

Now, after her request was denied and a deportation order issued, the Hernandez family has found sanctuary inside a historically black church located in North Philadelphia. There, they will await an appeal and attempt to avoid returning to a country where they do not feel safe.

“Just like I am here, there are many immigrant families that are being removed unfairly, families that are being separated unjustly, and that’s what I’m protesting,” Hernandez said from inside Church of the Advocate.

Before finding the church, Hernandez knocked on countless doors in both Vineland, New Jersey, where the family lived, and Philadelphia.

But Church of the Advocate has a long history of activism. It is a member of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, and immediately responded to Hernandez’s plea for help.

Church leaders say it is a natural pairing of two communities that are frequently overlooked.

“People of color, together, are on the margins of power in this country,” Rev. Renee McKenzie said. “We stand beside Carmela in her courage. She wants what we all want for our children.”

Hernandez will remain inside the church while lawyers help her fight the deportation order. Because she has relatives who were killed in Mexico, and was herself assaulted, advocates are hopeful a judge will be sympathetic.

"They have a strong case for asylum because they fled their home country in fear of violence," said New Sanctuary Movement spokeswoman Sheila Quintana. “This is not a fair system and it has put the lives of Carmela and her children at risk.”

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