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Teachers’ union officials join call for amnesty for family claiming sanctuary in Philly church

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady has drafted a bill to spare Carmela Hernandez and her children from deportation. They fled Mexico after being threatened by a drug cartel.

Greg Windle

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Representatives of the teachers’ union joined elected officials Monday to call for a stay on the deportation of Carmela Hernandez, a mother from Mexico seeking sanctuary for herself and her four children at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.

Hernandez and her children want amnesty after fleeing Mexico, where an unnamed drug cartel has threatened her life and has killed other members of her family. Her family found the Church of the Advocate through the New Sanctuary Movement, which is continuing to help with her legal obstacles.

Hernandez thanked U.S. Rep. Bob Brady for drafting a bill that would give her family amnesty. Meanwhile, her family is stuck inside the church — though her children attend public schools in the area during the day before returning to the church each night.

“It’s very hard,” Hernandez said, through a translator, about living in the church since December. “But when food is prepared with everybody, and we’re all together, we can step outside the church. … Once I’m with everyone else, I don’t feel so alone and I feel protected.”

She spends her days helping in the church kitchen and daycare center, working with her lawyer, and volunteering for the New Sanctuary Movement.

“Sometimes there’s just nothing to do here, and those are the moments I get bored and I grow concerned. But then I realize that we have to keep fighting,” she said. “We’re fighting for my children so they can go to school. That’s why they’re in school right now, because they have dreams they want to accomplish.”

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, was there to offer support on behalf of school staff.

“Carmela is doing what any parent would do for their children, regardless of immigration status,” Jordan said. “She is prioritizing their safety and education. Surely there is something we can do for this and other families in the same situation.”

The union has organized staff training sessions on the rights of undocumented students, Jordan said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the group is organizing around this issue everywhere they see a need by hosting “know-your-rights” training and “deportation defense” training for its members and their school communities. They set up community partnerships with groups such as the New Sanctuary Movement and offer “citizenship clinics,” which help immigrant families through the bureaucratic process of becoming U.S. citizens.

“What we have seen and witnessed among our members is a great sense of urgency to protect and support our children and their families, as well as the thousands of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] teachers who are not in our ranks,” she said.

Weingarten made a request of the federal Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“We are a nation of immigrants,” Weingarten said. “We have opened our doors to refugees for the over 200 years of our existence. Please open our doors for this family, whose kids want a better life, to escape from Mexico and from the oppression of the drug cartels. This is the plea I am giving ICE: Find your humanity, as opposed to this political ideology.

“If you don’t, we will do what social justice advocates do. We will go out and fight for justice for this lady and her children.”

City Council President Darrell Clarke, another supporter of the families’ pleas for amnesty, called attention to the rich history of the 19th-century Church of the Advocate, which played a prominent role in the nation’s civil rights and women’s rights movements.

The church was a center for civil rights activism throughout the 1960s. It hosted the first National Conference of Black Power in 1968 and the first Black Panther Conference in 1970.

In 1974, the first women priests in the Episcopal church — the Philadelphia Eleven — were ordained there.

“Over the years, these doors have always been open,” Clarke said. “We’re going to make sure that we do what we need to do to keep your family together.”

The church’s vicar, the Rev. Renee McKenzie, spoke proudly of the role her community has played in Hernandez’s amnesty efforts. She stood among the church’s famous murals, which show scenes of black oppression cast in fiery colors alongside scenes of sorrow painted in cool blues.

“We’re going to be by your side fighting this fight because we know that it’s the right thing to do,” McKenzie said. “We know that her children matter. That she matters. That everyone matters.”

Brady, a Democrat, described drafting the bill for amnesty as both a “pleasure” and a “duty.” He hopes it “gets the attention of ICE.”

“It lets them know that this lady is not fighting by herself. That I will get as many co-signers as I can, as soon as I can, and get ICE’s attention to look at it again,” Brady said. “These schoolchildren would be in major harm’s way going back to Mexico. And I’d like to ask the question: If you send them back, and something happens to them, how do you sleep at night?”

Brady said the amnesty bill needs 218 co-sponsors; he has 200 so far. “The other 18 are sitting on the other side of the aisle,” he said.

“Carmela, because of you, I can’t wait to go back to Washington to work on this bill, get it done, get it introduced, get some attention, and allow you to give a better life, like we all enjoy, to your family,” he said. “So God bless you, and God bless your courage.”

Jasmine Delgado, the accompaniment coordinator for the New Sanctuary Movement, said that the Hernandez family was just one of 41 sanctuary cases across the country. She thanked Hernandez for standing up.

“She has given us the opportunity to live out our faith. It’s going to take the building of strong, robust, and wide-reaching relationships to counter the agenda of hate and fear-mongering that the administration is currently embarking on,” Delgado said. “These are not victims. These are not folks who are hiding. Rather, they are giving us leadership and engaging in an act of civil disobedience that is 24/7, and we are all extensions of them. We are capable of being outside of the church doors and fighting tirelessly for immigrant justice and to safeguard the human rights of everyone in this nation.”

Hernandez’s gratitude brimmed over as she thanked the politicians, community members of the church, and schools that her children attend.

“My children go to school, and the school is their second home,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes it’s hard. They say ‘Mom, even though they treat us well and we like being here at the church, we’d like to be able to go to school and then to our own home.’

“I know now that we’re not alone. Even if sometimes we live with fear and feel afraid, I hope that soon we will be able to leave here.”

Greg Windle is a staff reporter and photographer at the Notebook.

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