At a press conference on 21 June at a Methodist church in Manhattan, Debora Barrios-Vasquez, a 32-year-old mother of two from Guatemala, stepped towards the microphones. She was flanked by around two dozen church leaders, immigration activists and local government officials, as well as Cynthia Nixon, the former Sex and the City actress who is running for governor of New York. She took a deep breath to steady herself. “Welcome to my place,” she said.
Barrios-Vasquez has not been able to leave the church of St Paul and St Andrew since 14 May, when she sought sanctuary there to avoid being deported. Immigration officials do not arrest people in religious buildings, but as soon as she steps outside, she would be at risk. Barrios-Vasquez has lived in the US since 2005, and her two-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son are American citizens. Until her life was derailed by her deportation order, she was working for a charity and planning to enrol at university in the autumn to study IT.
She cannot talk in detail about her immigration case, for fear of jeopardising the outcome, but in 2011 she was pulled over by a police officer while driving and informed that she had been under a removal order since 2005. Barrios-Vasquez began attending periodic check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and hired a lawyer to help with her asylum application. She says the lawyer neglected her case for years, and she was shocked and “heartbroken” to learn in February that she was due to be deported. After seeking help from the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant rights organisation, she decided to shelter in the church while fighting her case. “I couldn’t be another mother separated from her children,” she said.
Under the Trump administration, ICE has become fiercely aggressive in its pursuit of undocumented immigrants. No longer is priority given to deporting those convicted of serious crimes or recent arrivals: anyone who is undocumented can be targeted – and they are. Figures released by the mayor’s office show that in Donald Trump’s first seven months in office the number of ICE arrests in New York City rose by 65 per cent on the previous year, and arrests of immigrants with no criminal convictions more than tripled. Workplace raids and high-profile cases, such as the Ecuadorian detained in June while delivering pizza to a Brooklyn army base, have terrified the city’s large undocumented community.
Barrios-Vasquez is the third undocumented woman to have sought sanctuary publicly in a New York church this year, something that has not happened in the city since the Eighties. At least a dozen others have done so in secret.
“Taking sanctuary should be the last resort,” Ravi Ragbir, the head of the New Sanctuary Coalition, told me. “Sanctuary is a form of prison. When you are in there you cannot leave, and you can become very anxious. Mentally it’s draining, emotionally it’s draining, especially if you have children.” His organisation has been compelled to revive the practice because ICE has started deporting people even while their legal appeals are ongoing.
The New Sanctuary Coalition, a network of religious leaders and activists, is itself coming under assault from ICE. It says state agents have infiltrated and surveilled its meetings. One of the group’s co-founders, Jean Montrevil, was arrested during his lunch break and deported to Haiti in January. The same month Ragbir, who has been attending regular ICE check-ins for a decade, was arrested during a routine meeting and sent straight to detention in Florida pending deportation.
Ragbir, a charismatic public speaker with a distinctive grey ponytail, is prominent within the city’s activist community. He organises weekly vigils outside ICE’s New York headquarters and commits to a formidable work schedule. His arrest sparked protests in which 18 people, among them two city councillors, were arrested. Following the public outcry and a legal judgment which stated that ICE had shown “unnecessary cruelty” towards him, he was released on 29 January.
The Trinidadian, who has lived in the US for 25 years and has an American wife and daughter, is fighting to overturn his deportation order. He is appealing a 2001 fraud conviction, and his lawyers have filed a suit accusing the government of attempting to silence Ragbir by deporting him, and of targeting at least ten other immigrant rights leaders in retaliation for their activism. While Ragbir’s lawsuits are ongoing he cannot be deported, but his future is uncertain. For now, he is immersing himself in his work. It’s his way of coping, and he feels a sense of moral duty. “I’m in a unique position, because there are so many people that know me and that will fight for me,” he told me.
In mid-July, a few days before I met Ragbir, I visited Barrios-Vasquez in church. It was stuffy and dark inside, and the cacophony of summer in the city – roadworks, sirens and shouting children – was muffled by the thick stone walls as though we were deep underwater.
For her first week inside the church, Barrios-Vasquez was depressed and afflicted by chronic headaches. “Then I said, what can I do crying here? For my headache I can take a pill, and I will have to do something… to get busy.” She started volunteering at the church soup kitchen and it made her feel like her “own person” again. Sometimes friends visit, or she plays with her children in the courtyard. Otherwise, she watches TV, or reads, or studies, or does her crochet or beadwork, or she prays. She looked tired and strained.
Her daughter Berenice had been playing with a phone, kicking her sparkly pink high-tops against the dark wooden pew, but she grew bored and tugged tearfully at her mother. Barrios-Vasquez said sometimes Berenice starts crying and screaming, “Mummy, I want to go home.” She went on: “And then I start crying too, because if I can’t take her home…” she sighed and could not finish the sentence. “It took me a while to feel comfortable with that.”
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special