Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant living in sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate on Diamond Street near Gratz, engaged in a sit-in protest in the lobby of United States Sen. Bob Casey’s Philadelphia office on Wednesday in a plea for immigration protections.
Hernandez, originally from Mexico, and her daughter Keyri left the church, where she and her other three children have lived since December 2017, risking deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“As long as I have life, I will keep on fighting,” Hernandez said through her interpreter, Yared Portillo. “Someday I will be free.”
In January, the Hernandez children left the church to attend school for the first time after six weeks in sanctuary at the church.
The Rev. Renee McKenzie of the Church of the Advocate, Intellectual Heritage instructor Wende Marshall and about 20 other supporters were present for Hernandez’s protest. About 40 Philadelphia Police officers were present.
“Carmela was at the point where she really needed Bob Casey to respond,” McKenzie said. “She’s been talking with him for months now, and he’s expressed his support of her in private, but he would not make a public statement and he certainly didn’t introduce the private bill, which is what Carmela wanted to be introduced before the U.S. Senate.”
A private bill can be introduced by a congressperson to apply to a specific individual. Hernandez is seeking a private bill to receive permanent residence in the U.S.
Casey was not at the office during the protest and spoke to Hernandez over the phone, McKenzie said.
His office could not be immediately reached for comment.
Casey expressed his support of the family in a message posted on his official Twitter page.
“Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her children face life-threatening danger in their home country, which is why I have pushed the Administration to treat them fairly and appropriately evaluate their asylum claim,” he wrote in a tweet. “Over many months, I have advocated on the family’s behalf with top officials in the Administration. I have also met with Carmela’s children and spoken directly with her.”
“I, along with my staff, will continue to advocate for measures that will provide them the protections they are due under our laws,” he added.
Casey is running for Senate re-election in the Nov. 6 midterm against Republican candidate Lou Barletta.
The Rev. Robin Hynicka of Arch Street United Methodist Church on Broad Street near Arch was arrested during the protest.
Philadelphia Police began to clear the lobby of Casey’s office shortly after 6 p.m., warning that any protesters who remained would be arrested. Shortly after, the family and its supporters departed.
PPD referred all comments on the protest to Casey’s office.
Portillo said the family would return to sanctuary at the church following the protest.
ICE officials provided a timeline of Hernandez’s actions and its response to them in a statement to The Temple News.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended Hernandez in 2015 and enrolled her in the Alternatives to Detention program while her immigration case was pending. An immigration judge ordered Hernandez to be removed from the U.S. on Sept. 27, 2016.
The Alternatives to Detention program is an option other than imprisonment that undocumented immigrants can choose while they await a hearing. Hernandez was released from ICE custody with an ankle monitor as part of this program.
“In an exercise of discretion, ICE has allowed Ms. Hernandez to remain free from custody while finalizing her departure plans in accordance with the judge’s order,” officials wrote.
Those in violation of the immigration laws are subject to immigration arrest, detention and possible removal from the U.S., the statement said.
ICE avoids enforcement actions at what it considers “sensitive locations,” including schools, medical facilities and places of worship, according to its website.
Marshall said immigration is an important issue to her and protests like these can be a great lesson for her students.
“My Temple students can learn that democracy is a practice, it’s not just a lot of lip service,” Marshall said. “My students can learn that it’s very important to stand up for what you believe in, to always fight.”
“My students can learn that just because they say, ‘It can’t be done,’ doesn’t mean you stop,” she added.