Four undocumented children left the Church of the Advocate, where they have been living in sanctuary, for the first time in six weeks to attend school on Monday.
The children — Fidel, Keyri, Yoselin and Edwin — and their mother Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, who is also undocumented, took sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate on Diamond Street near 18th with help from the New Sanctuary Movement, an immigrant advocacy group. The family was previously denied asylum in the United States and ordered to leave the country by Dec. 15.
Hernandez watched her children leave the church while she stood nearby, wearing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement-issued ankle bracelet that prevents her from straying too far from the church.
Risking deportation, the children were driven to school after an 8 a.m. rally led by state Rep. Christopher Rabb, Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym, Legislative Representative of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Hillary Linardopoulos and Hernandez.
ICE, which enforces border control, customs, trade and immigration, will not enforce its policies at “sensitive locations” like schools and places of worship, according to the agency’s website.
“I want you to understand that they are children, and for them to be cooped up in rooms under sanctuary is very, very hard,” Hernandez told the crowd. “They get a little desperate and think that they really need to be free and be able to just walk out. Today they are walking out, but we want to be free. We want to be permanently free.”
Officials from the New Sanctuary Movement told the crowd at the church that the children’s school will remain secret for their protection.
ICE issued the family a deportation notice in 2015 after they were denied asylum. The family came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2015 to escape violent, organized drug criminals who targeted their family and killed Hernandez’s brother and nephews.
The siblings prepared for their first day by helping each other decorate their notebooks with stickers. Yoselin Artillero Apolonio, 11, said she is very excited for art class.
“I want to have a better future,” Apolonio told The Temple News.
The children said they are nervous to attend school, but remain hopeful because of the support from city officials and residents.
“ICE could come in here at any moment,” Rabb said. “There is no law keeping ICE from coming in here right now. … What Carmela is doing is a bold and dangerous thing.”
ICE agents could decide to enforce the order and deport the family at any time, but they have been dissuaded from doing so in churches and schools because of the negative attention that it might draw.
Former Mayor Michael Nutter declared Philadelphia a sanctuary city in 2014, meaning city employees like police officers are prohibited from questioning a person’s immigration status. Mayor Jim Kenney, whose term began in January 2016, continued to support the city’s sanctuary status.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department sent letters to 23 cities, counties and states, warning them they would be subpoenaed if they did not turn over records of its sanctuary status and undocumented immigrants, Politico reported.
Gym has expressed support for the Hernandez family and Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city.
“Today, these four children are going to do what every single child in Philadelphia has the right to do: to go to school, to study and learn, to come home and feel safe and secure and joyful on these streets,” Gym told the crowd at Monday’s event.
“We have to send a message now that when Congress refuses to pass righteous immigration reform, when young people feel terrorized just going to school, then this is an unjust law,” Gym added. “When these young people step forward out of the doors of this sanctuary, they carry more courage than so many people in [Washington,] D.C. right now.”