INSIDE LOOK: Undocumented Honduran woman, children living in sanctuary at Virginia church

Virginia News

Abbie Arevalo-Herrera is an undocumented woman from Honduras who lives in sanctuary at a Richmond church with her children. Photo: Keyris Manzanares

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In December, it will be seven years since Abbie Arevalo-Herrera fled domestic violence in Honduras.

As she recounts her story from the moments leading up to fleeing from her home, her eyes begin to water. Arevalo-Herrera said she feared for her life. Her partner and father of her two oldest children had threatened to kill her.

In early December of 2013, she said half-goodbyes to her family, left her newborn daughter with her mother and grabbed her eldest daughter to leave for the United States, planning to apply for asylum.

On her journey to America, her daughter celebrated her 7th birthday. Arevalo-Herrera said she tried to console her daughter, who was confused and sad about leaving Honduras. She tried to make it better by telling her child that once they reached the states they would celebrate. A stranger who was with them on the journey could see the sadness in the girl, Arevalo-Herrera said. He gave her 50 pesos to buy her daughter a cake.

But there was no cake. The following day, Arevalo-Herrera and her daughter were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol while crossing the Rio Grande into Texas.

The mother and daughter were held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in McAllen, Texas, for about eight days, according to Arevalo-Herrera.

“You lose track of time in there. You have guards constantly waking you up or making rounds,” she said.

When Abbie Arevalo-Herrera moved into the church, people sent her photos for a wall so she could look “outside.”
Keyris Manzanares/8News

When she was released from the detention center, Arevalo-Herrera was given a “Notice to Appear” in court. Arevalo-Herrera said she remembers that the day [ICE officials] told her she could leave, they had her sign a document.

Arevalo-Herrera said there were no translators and that ICE officials did not explain to the detainees what they were signing. She said that before she signed the document she asked, “What is this for?”

Arevalo-Herrera’s attorney Alina Kilpatrick explained that Arevalo-Herrera’s “Notice to Appear” in court — issued by the Department of Homeland Security — left out a date and time of the hearing.

“This is a persistent problem,” Kilpatrick said.

Arevalo-Herrera stands in her living room with her friend Flor (left) and lawyer Alina Kilpatrick (right).
Keyris Manzanares/8News

Arevalo-Herrera and her daughter traveled by bus from Texas to Richmond, Virginia where some of her family resides. Her journey took her across the country and through the American immigration system. And now, ICE considers Arevalo-Herrera an immigration fugitive.

A few months after arriving in Richmond, Arevalo-Herrera went to check-in at the ICE Washington Field Office. Arevalo-Herrera said she notified ICE officials of a change of address.

“ICE is not obligated to tell the courts of these changes,” Kilpatrick said.

Arevalo-Herrera said she waited for the notice with her court date, time and location to arrive at her address in Richmond, but it never came. Therefore, she never had the chance to appear in court.

Arevalo-Herrera was tried in absentia at a court in Texas. An immigration judge issued a final order of removal in March 2015, requiring her to leave the United States.

A few months later, Arevalo-Herrera appeared at her ICE check-in appointment, in Richmond, and learned of the removal order. She was given an ankle monitor to wear.

These tracking devices are not issued by ICE but rather a company named BI Incorporated, an independent contractor. BI Incorporated has been working with the Department of Homeland Security since 2014. The contractor runs an alternative to detention known as the ‘Intensive Supervision Appearance Program.’

ICE depends on these devices — if you don’t have a monitor device, they will deport you, Arevalo-Herrera said.

Arevalo-Herrera spent the next couple of years trying to appeal her order of removal.

During this time, Arevalo-Herrera was living and occasionally working in Richmond. She also met her now-husband. They were married in 2017 and have a 4-year-old son.

Arevalo Herrera’s son plays in the basement of the Richmond church where he lives in sanctuary with his mom.
Keyris Manzanares/8News

In early June of 2018, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that immigrants fleeing domestic violence or gangs in their homeland were no longer eligible for asylum in the United States.

Facing deportation, Arevalo-Herrera sought sanctuary at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond. She hasn’t stepped outside since that day.

Executive Minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church, Rev. Sherman Z. Logan, said the congregation felt that giving Arevalo-Herrera sanctuary was the right thing to do.

Thinking back on when Arevalo-Herrera sought sanctuary, Rev, Sherman said it was important for the church to “provide sanctuary for a person who was in need and who, because of our government’s policies and laws, placed this young lady in a precarious position.”

“As a faith community, one of our principals is that we uphold the inherent right and dignity of all people. And she needed to be treated in a dignified manner,” Rev. Sherman said. “We’re glad to be able to provide sanctuary for her.”

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond where Abbie Arevalo Herrera has been living in sanctuary for the past two years. Keyris Manzanares/8News

ICE has a policy of not entering what they consider “sensitive locations,” such as places of worship, schools, medical treatment facilities and health care facilities.

“On June 20, 2018, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, a Honduran citizen illegally present in the U.S., failed to report to ICE and instead took sanctuary in a Richmond, Virginia, church, making her an ICE fugitive,” ICE explained in a statement. “An immigration judge issued her a final order of removal in March 2015, which required her to depart the U.S.”

Arevalo was originally encountered in December 2013 by the U.S. Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and issued a notice to appear in immigration court for being an alien present without admission or parole. She was subsequently transferred to ICE custody and released by ICE on an order of recognizance. In March 2015, she did not appear for her immigration court hearing, and an immigration judge ordered her removed to Honduras in absentia. She was ordered to report to ICE in April 2015. At that time, ICE enrolled her in its Alternatives to Detention program with an ankle monitoring bracelet. She then filed a stay of removal and a motion to reopen her case. In July 2015, an immigration judge denied her motion to reopen her case, and ICE denied her stay of removal request. A subsequent motion to reopen her case was denied by an immigration judge in April 2018. In May 2018, she filed an emergency stay request and an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The BIA denied her application for an emergency stay, as well as her appeal. A stay of removal was again filed on her behalf in June 2018, which was also denied. In December 2019, ICE mailed Arevalo a letter instructing her to report to the agency’s Richmond office. Arevalo failed to report as instructed and remains an immigration fugitive.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Since Arevalo-Herrera entered sanctuary, she has been outspoken about her case and has criticized the U.S. immigration system, which is in part why her lawyer thinks she is targeted by ICE.

In July 2019, ICE sent Arevalo-Herrera a “Notice of Intention to Fine” letter citing the agency had the authority to “impose civil fines on aliens who have been ordered removed or granted voluntary departure and fail to depart the United States.”

The letter was also sent to six other women living in sanctuary. Because of those civil fines, Arevalo-Herrera received a letter from ICE saying that she could owe $295,630.00.

The Notice of Intention to Fine also cited Arevalo-Herrera’s decision to seek “sanctuary from removal.”

“I believe that it’s a targeted action to try and silence these women in sanctuary,” Kilpatrick said.

Now 33 years old, Arevalo-Herrera said she faces an impossible choice — be killed if she were to go back to Honduras or remain confined inside the walls of a church.

Her children, Arevalo-Herrera said, have started to ask questions like — “cuando vamos a salir de aqui,” — when are we going to leave here?

After living in sanctuary for two years, what Arevalo-Herrera misses the most is nature.

She can see Byrd Park through the upstairs windows of the church where she lives, but Arevalo-Herrera doesn’t dare to leave church grounds. If she did, she risks being detained by ICE.

While at the church, Arevalo-Herrera spends most of her day in the kitchen. On a rainy, fall day she is cooking for her family — the aromas fill the church basement where she lives with her son and daughter.

She said she feels like a woman who obtained freedom from her violent partner in Honduras, only to be confined by fears that she will be separated from her children.

Arevalo-Herrera focuses on surviving the day to day. She stays busy and cares for her children while they attend virtual classes due to the coronavirus pandemic. She spends time attending meetings with the National Sanctuary Collective, looking after her children, sewing and exercising.

She also attends classes. Right now, Arevalo-Herrera is taking English classes and dreams of attending college and giving a voice to other undocumented immigrants like herself.

33-year-old Abbie Arevalo-Herrera stands in the entryway to her home in the basement of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond. She hasn’t stepped outside the church since seeking sanctuary from ICE in 2018. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo-Herrera cooks for her children so they can eat during their break from virtual learning. Her daughter is in middle school and her son is in pre-K. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Every month, Arevalo-Herrera’s team asks for funds or donations to help fill her pantry. A volunteer goes out and buys her groceries. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Drawing in her kitchen that says “Honduras” where Arevalo-Herrera is from. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Abbie-Arevalo Herrera’s son is attending pre-K online. He is learning English and speaks Spanish fluently.
Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo-Herrera spends some of her time exercising or sewing. She says she misses being outdoors playing with her children. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Before the pandemic, Arevalo-Herrera was asked to be in an art show. She chose to draw herself as a parrot looking out to nature. The parrot is chained to a cage. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo-Herrera’s children keep books and toys in her room. Keyris Manzanares/8News
In Honduras, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera graduated with her Bachelor’s in Sciences. She is now learning English. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo Herrera plays with her son in the basement of a Richmond church where she lives in sanctuary. She is undocumented and her son is a U.S. Citizen. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo-Herrera washes her hands before serving lunch to her children. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo-Herrera gets ready to serve lunch. She cooks and uses the kitchen located in the basement of the church. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo-Herrera cooked white rice and pollo guisado, a traditional Central American dish. Keyris Manzanares/8News
Arevalo-Herrera serves up meals for her children. She says they often eat dishes that remind them of Honduras. Keyris Manzanares/8News

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