SALT LAKE CITY — Vicky Chavez is waiting for the day when she can take her daughters to Disneyland, or even to a Salt Lake park where they can sit in the grass and eat ice cream.
The girls, ages 3 and 9, aren’t allowed to go outside. The family has taken sanctuary for three years in a church in Salt Lake City, and Chavez worries if they leave the building that immigration authorities might apprehend them and send them back to Honduras.
Chavez, 33, says she’s hopeful that will change as President Joe Biden’s administration begins reshaping immigration enforcement policies.
“I cannot continue to be waiting a long time,” Chavez told reporters Wednesday.
Her older daughter attends online school from inside First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, while Chavez teaches the younger girl to name toys and other items in both English and Spanish.
But Chavez wants her daughters to see waves break on a beach and share dinners made from scratch in the homes of other family members in the U.S. “They deserve to be happy,” she says.
Chavez was on her way to the airport in January 2018 after exhausting appeals of a deportation order when she decided to accept the church’s offer to take refuge there.
“It was an act of faith for the church to offer sanctuary, and an act of faith for me to accept,” Chavez said Wednesday. She wiped away tears at times during the news conference.
She had fled her home country because of an abusive boyfriend, and first sought asylum in the United States in 2014. She said she worried that returning to Honduras would put her kids in danger.
The church took another step to support her on Wednesday, joining a lawsuit from Chavez and three other undocumented women who are in similar situations in Ohio, Texas and Virginia.
They allege U.S. immigration officials under then-President Trump stuck them each with roughly $60,000 in fines — a civil penalty for not leaving the country — because they spoke out about their cases.
The Unitarian church was Utah’s first to have an undocumented person take sanctuary within its walls.
It’s also the only place of worship to sign on so far as a single plaintiff in the case, a move endorsed by the congregation that earlier raised about $10,000 to help cover the family’s legal costs, senior minister Rev. Tom Goldsmith told the Deseret News.
The church’s members have gotten to know Chavez well over the past three years and signed on to the lawsuit in part because they want her to know how deeply they care for her family, Goldsmith said.
“It’s also a message to other faith groups that says, ‘Look, get off your rump. There’s a lot of work ahead of us,’” Goldsmith added. “It’s one thing to preach the message of welcoming a stranger on a Sunday morning. It’s another thing to be actively engaged in making sure that happens.”
Chavez aspires to be an accountant and is polishing her English language skills with the help of the church community. In one of many projects to pass the time, she crocheted a figurine of Biden in a black face mask, blue suit and American flag pin. The plush president rested on a shelf behind her during the news conference.
“I need his help,” she said after the news conference, adding that she plans to have the doll delivered to Biden when she finds the right person to get it to him.
Like Chavez, the three other women also sought asylum and took refuge from deportation in churches. Federal immigration officials have long directed officers to avoid making arrests at places of worship under a “sensitive locations” policy that has also pertained to other settings like schools and hospitals.
First Unitarian is now working with the Philadelphia-based Free Migration Project and Austin Sanctuary Network in advocating for the women. The groups say the roughly $60,000 fines each of them faces are excessive and unconstitutional. They also contend immigration offices in each state are heeding the Democratic president’s new instructions in varying degrees.
The groups said they hoped the Biden administration would drop the fines soon after he took office in January, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Immigration enforcers first issued the fines in 2019 that ranged from $200,000 to about $500,000, but reduced them in February of last year, said attorney David Bennion, executive director of the Free Migration Project. He called the roughly $60,000 fees “still an unconscionable and egregious amount” that aimed to punish the women for their activism.
“Because these leaders spoke out, the Trump administration took the extraordinary measure of targeting them,” Bennion said.
The groups say they obtained documents through federal records requests that showed Trump aide Stephen Miller took part in discussions about using the money to cover the cost of construction on a wall on the border with Mexico.
María Chavalán Sut, who has taken refuge in a church in Charlottesville, Virginia, said Trump and Miller are constant figures in her dreams, causing her heart to race.
“I have to fight to wake up every day from those nightmares,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.
The lawsuit names the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as defendants. Those agencies haven’t responded yet in court filings.
Chavez said the lawsuit is one step in trying to help make things better for her children.
“I will continue to fight for them in order to show the world the immigration system in the U.S. is unjust,” she said.