On the second floor of University Lutheran Church near Harvard Square, a few Sunday school classrooms have been converted into a makeshift bedroom and living room.
It’s a temporary home for a family of three: A 26-year-old woman originally from Ecuador and her daughters, who are American citizens, ages 2-and-a-half and 10 months.
The undocumented mother and her children are the only family in Massachusetts to publicly seek a church’s protection since the Trump Administration’s immigration crackdown.
The mother — whose name we’re not using to protect her identity — had been ordered to leave the country in 2014 and had lost her asylum case. But, afraid to return to Ecuador and afraid of being separated from her family, she stayed in her home in Waltham and continued a normal life, working as a cook at a restaurant.
That normal life came to an end in May when immigration authorities showed up at the family’s home. She avoided the officials and, on the advice of a friend, fled to the church. Immigration officials have a policy of not entering sensitive locations, such as schools, hospitals and religious institutions, so for the past 55 days, she’s stayed in the church.
The rooms are dotted with toys and books. Her older daughter has mastered the English alphabet. The mother has also been taking English lessons two days a week.
She says that one small advantage of being in the church is that she’s been able to spend more time with her daughters. She says what her children are learning will be valuable.
She says she’s grateful that the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition has welcomed and supported her, coordinating a team of volunteers. But still, she says she doesn’t feel like a normal human being. She finds herself missing the little things — the chores, the routines people have when living in their own home. She says she can’t take her kids to the park or go shopping with them.
The 26-year-old says none of this was her plan — she didn’t even want to come to the U.S. But in 2012, she says a man forcibly took her from her small hometown in Ecuador to the U.S., against her will.
After being caught and held by authorities near the border, she eventually found her way to Massachusetts and built a life here. If she is deported to Ecuador, she fears she’d face persecution.
“She’s a member of an indigenous community in Ecuador,” said Philip Torrey, the managing attorney at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. “Particularly in the last few months, the government of Ecuador has been targeting and persecuting members of her community.”
“The government has been forcibly evicting individuals from that community off their own land in order to raze the land and to mine it,” said Torrey.
Her lawyers have filed a motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals and they’re hopeful. They say she has no criminal record, and the evolving politics in Ecuador could make her a better candidate for asylum.
While the legal case continues, she still faces deportation. Torrey’s team has asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stay their client’s removal order, but that request was denied.
A spokesperson for ICE said no additional extenuating circumstances were presented, and the court had already denied her asylum.
“What’s concerning is that ICE, based on their denial, doesn’t appear to be looking particularly close to the facts for a case,” said Torrey. “These are supposed to be individualized determinations. The denial that we received was a pretty blanket denial.”
Her lawyers say they will now file another request for a stay, and the mother says she’s praying for a miracle.