Using rhetoric that rattled the stained-glass windows, supporters of the undocumented Mexican family living in sanctuary inside a North Philadelphia church loudly declared their commitment to the mother and her four children Monday, while decrying immigration officials, President Trump, and those who, they claim, have forgotten why the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor.
All the while, Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, 36, under order with her children to be deported since December, stood smiling beneath black safety netting keeping the soaring stone ceiling of the crumbling 131-year-old Church of the Advocate from literally falling down on her.
"I want to thank this person whose name I can't pronounce," Hernandez said through a translator, referring to Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Brady of Philadelphia, who had locked the diminutive woman in an embrace with his left arm, as though his sheer size and up-from-the-street Philly attitude would protect Hernandez from being dispatched to her home country, where her brother and two nephews were murdered.
"This lady is not fighting by herself," declared Brady, who said he will introduce a so-called private bill in Congress to bestow U.S. citizenship on Hernandez and her children — Edwin, 9; Yoselin, 11; Keyri, 13; and Fidel, 15. The children were at their schools during the event.
Brady acknowledged it would be "tough to pass" such a measure, but even proposing it "should get the attention of ICE," the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In a statement Monday afternoon, ICE officials described Hernandez as "an unlawfully present citizen of Mexico." They added that, "in an exercise of discretion, ICE has allowed Ms. Hernandez to remain free from custody while finalizing her departure plans." Officials also said that "aliens who illegally enter the United States … have violated our nation's laws and can pose a threat to national security and public safety."
While ICE guidelines deter agents from grabbing up people earmarked for deportation from "sensitive locations" such as churches, Brady addressed the gathered media, asking, "Wouldn't you want to be here if ICE came? [The family] would be taken out of here disgracefully. Can you imagine that visual?"
Also on hand, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, reminded Trump that he is descended from an immigrant family. "Immigrants came to the United States to escape oppression and find freedom," she said, adding, "The plea to ICE is to find your humanity."
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke mused aloud, "I don't know about the president, but the Statue of Liberty means something to me."
Representatives from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, as well as the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, helped co-sponsor the event.
Hernandez expressed hope that she will some day be able to leave the sanctuary "and be free." With a nod toward the roughly three-dozen others living in sanctuary around the country, Hernandez added, "I'm not the only immigrant going through this. We should keep fighting."
The family came to the United States in August 2015, fleeing the violence of organized drug criminals who killed Hernandez's relatives, taxi drivers unable to pay extortion fees. Threatened and assaulted by the same men, Hernandez came north to San Diego, seeking asylum. After being detained and denied asylum, the five were sent to be in the care of a relative who's an American citizen in Pennsylvania. Hernandez eventually found her way to the church.
Because she said her children need to engage with others their age, Hernandez sent them to school. "My children have a right to go to school," she said in a previous interview.
Offering a window of what life is like in perpetual self-quarantine within the Episcopal church, Hernandez said she helps with the church's feeding program when she can.
Often, though, there's nothing for her to do while her children are in school. That's when, she said, the worries stir inside her head.
It's all she can do to squelch panic.