SALT LAKE CITY — For the past six months, Vicky Chavez and her two young daughters have stayed in a Salt Lake City church to avoid deportation to Honduras, where Chavez says she and her children will be unsafe.
But last month, she and her advocates found out that her appeal for asylum was denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals, meaning that her goal of giving her daughters a normal life will again be put on hold.
"My daughters are very smart, and I feel I'm not doing enough to make (a normal life) possible for them,” Chavez said with emotion during a press conference Monday at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Salt Lake, which has sheltered her.
Chavez plans to pursue a reversal to the board's decision in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"For me, I feel it is my only option to reopen my case while keeping my family safe,” she said Monday.
The mother has said she fled Honduras in 2014 to escape social and economic unrest, as well as "domestic violence, rape and being persecuted by my (older) daughter's father."
Chavez was on her way to a flight to Honduras on Jan. 30 when she says she changed her mind and decided conditions were too unsafe for her two young children in her home country, opting instead to take up residence inside the church.
Chavez moved into the church with her then 4-month-old and 6-year-old daughters after the Board of Immigration Appeals rejected an initial request for a stay of deportation via asylum. Asylum is a legal protection immigrants can seek on the basis that they are at risk of persecution in their home country.
Dozens gathered at Monday's press conference to show Chavez support, some carrying signs such as “We belong together," "We deserve a world without borders” and "No human being is illegal."
Chavez said when she learned that her appeal was denied, her “world came crashing down.” Yet, she says words of support from people in the community have helped her continue to fight.
Easton Smith, a friend of Chavez who says he has worked with her over the last several months to find lawyers and coordinate a campaign to help her, said she couldn’t find hope or safety in her home country, which was “unable to protect her.”
Since coming to the U.S., he said, the mother has “done everything that an asylum seeker is supposed to do.”
He said Chavez initially hired lawyers who were "often negligent" and provided her with ineffective counsel.
According to Smith, at the First Unitarian Church she has found a “sliver of sanctuary she's been looking for since 2014." She also found better lawyers.
"We believe that Vicky and her daughters have a moral right to sanctuary, to asylum," without fear or domestic violence and family separation, Smith said. "We are going to stand with her until the case is heard."
Chavez said most of her relatives live in the U.S. and visit when they can. However, applying for citizenship through them would take years of waiting and would require the family to return to their home country.
First Unitarian Church Rev. Monica Dobbins said the church will “journey with her” for as long as it takes and will continue to provide her sanctuary.
"We were and we are committed to take Vicky's side in fair weather or foul no matter what, and that we shall do,” she said.
Claiming sanctuary inside a church in the United States doesn't legally pre-empt the possibility of arrest or deportation, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has publicly detailed a policy guideline stating that "enforcement actions are not to occur at or be focused on sensitive locations."
Those locations include "schools (or) places of worship," the agency says on its website. Still, the policy allows for exceptions in the event of "exigent circumstances" or when "prior approval is obtained from a designated supervisory official."
According to Joan Gregory, director of sanctuary efforts at the First Unitarian Church, "if we as people of faith, people of conscience, if we remain silent, we will be complicit with the policies of the current administration. ... we must speak out and show up for justice.”
For those who have fled domestic violence, Chavez said through a translator, "I know that experiencing domestic violence is not easy, but we have to continue fighting, push forward, always think of the future and the well-being of our daughters, that is the thing that is most important that gives us the strength to continue.”
During the press conference, Chavez pleaded for lawmakers to help her family by putting pressure on U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and for community members to reach out to lawmakers to take up the family’s cause.
The Salt Lake City Sanctuary Network has established a fund to help her legal defense at slcsanctuary.org/donate.
Contributing: Ben Lockhart