First Unitarian Church in Richmond is on lockdown. Volunteers take shifts standing guard, alIowing people in after they’ve checked ID’s through the window. The security measures have been in place since the church has become home for Abbie Arevalo-Herrera and her family.
It’s been three weeks since this church has offered sanctuary to the young mother who is now facing deportation. She and her daughter came to Virginia from Honduras in 2013, fleeing an abusive relationship and crossing the border illegally.
Now Arevalo-Herrera has set up a makeshift home in the church, along with her two-year old Manuel and another older daughter.
Sitting in a sunny corner of the church, one volunteer entertains the young boy while another helps translate. Arevalo-Herrera’s lawyer looks on as the 30-year-old talks about growing up the daughter of farmers in Honduras.
As the conversation turns to her abuser, the volunteer gathers up Manuel and quietly slips out of the room with him. Arevalo-Herrera says she was six months pregnant the first time her ex-husband beat her.
“There was also one time that I clearly remember that he put his hands around my neck and he was strangulating me,” she says with the help of translator Flor Lopez. “And I remember that I was having my daughter in my arms. Back then, in that moment I really felt like I was going to die.”
Arevalo-Herrera tried to move to her aunt’s house, but her abuser showed up with a machete and threatened to kill her. She had no faith in the police or the courts for protection, saying if he wound up in jail he would be released soon after.
“Because that’s how the law it is for us. That’s how the law is in Honduras,” she says. “Like people go to jail for some time and then they get out.”
It took her a month to escape to the United States border, traveling with a friend and her young daughter. She had to leave her infant behind with her mother. Leaving, she says, wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity.
No figures exist to show how many women flee Central America escaping domestic violence, but experts estimate it could be in the hundreds of thousands.
“And all we want is to be at peace,” says Arevalo-Herrera. “We have that right, like any other human beings.”
An official with ICE says Arevalo-Herrera was first ordered out of the country in 2015 when she missed a court date. Her lawyer says she missed it because the notice didn’t give a time or date.
Since then, several requests for an emergency stay have been denied.
Arevalo-Herrera has been living and working in Virginia, wearing an ankle bracelet and checking in with ICE weekly as part of their “Alternative to Detention” program. Her asylum case is currently under appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals.
But then in June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed new restrictions on asylum, saying victims of domestic abuse are no longer eligible. One week later Arevalo-Herrera was ordered to report to ICE for deportation.
Alina Kilpatrick, Arevalo-Herrera’s lawyer, says she thinks the two events are connected.
“I find it strange that Abbie -- a person with no criminal history, a person with a young US citizen child, a person who has a husband who is a lawful permanent resident, would have an order executed while her case is still on appeal. That strikes me as strange,” says Kilpatrick.
In Kilpatrick’s experience, ICE in Richmond has been willing to wait while an appeal is still pending.
Becky Wolozin is an immigration attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. She says ICE officials might have chosen to go ahead and deport Arevalo-Herrera now because the policy shift makes it less likely she’ll win her appeal.
“It could also just be that ICE is getting a lot of pressure to deport as many people as possible and is just not waiting for appeals in most circumstances,” says Wolozin.
It hasn’t been long enough to know for sure how the new asylum policy will play out, but Wolozin thinks it will cause many to lose cases they would previously have won.
“I really do think it will mean that women and children will die. Because they’ll lose their cases and they’ll go back,” Wolozin says. “And they will be pursued by the violent men that they fled.”
The man Arevalo-Herrera fled is still in Honduras. According to her mother, he thought Arevalo-Herrera had been deported. He showed up at the family’s house in Honduras just last week, threatening violence.
But Arevalo-Herrera was still in Virginia, in a church, waiting and praying that the United States will protect her.