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Sanctuary Immigrants Take Refuge In Texas Church, Watch Election Closely

Among those anxiously watching the U.S. presidential election is a Guatemalan mother and her teenaged son who have taken refuge in a church in Austin, Texas, for the entirety of Donald Trump's presidency.

Hilda and Iván Ramirez are ensconced in the Sunday school wing of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, which has given them sanctuary from deportation for more than four and a half years.

The 32-year-old mother and 14-year-old son have chosen this kind of cozy prison because they believe that if they leave church property they'll be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE agents generally do not make arrests inside churches, schools and hospitals.

"It's hard to have two fears," says Ramirez, sitting in the parish hall of the suburban church in north Austin. "I'm afraid they'll separate me from my son, that immigration agents will come at any minute. And I'm afraid of COVID, that I won't be able to go to the doctor."

As Election Day approaches, millions of immigrants like Ramirez are looking to Joe Biden as a savior if he gets in the White House. Trump promises to continue the crackdown if he wins a second term and warns that Biden would throw open the borders to massive illegal immigration.

Biden pledges to reverse Trump's harsh immigration restrictions and reenact more lenient Obama-era policies, such as restoring the asylum process and creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants already in the U.S. Biden's extensive immigration rollback runs to 22 pages.

Ramirez says they fled Ivan's abusive grandfather in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala five years ago, made it to the Texas border, and asked for asylum from the Obama/Biden administration. When her asylum request was denied, they fled to the safety of the church rather than let ICE remove them.

ICE has "prosecutorial discretion" in all deportation cases. But the agency said in an email that it is charged with "carrying out the removal decisions made by federal immigration judges."

"Those who have no claim to relief will ultimately be returned to their home country," the agency said.

Ramirez says ICE has rejected every stay of deportation she has sought. And to turn the screw tighter, the agency imposed a civil fine on her for $303,000, eventually lowered to nearly $60,000 for failing to depart the United States — a sum she has no way to pay.

"If I could vote I would prefer Joe Biden," she says, "because, though he has deported lots of people, he was never as bad as Donald Trump, who has divided mothers from their children."

In her hopes for a Biden victory, Ramirez is articulating the aspirations of some 50 immigrants who have taken sanctuary in churches across the country and are publicly fighting their removal orders. And there are millions more.

The list expecting relief from a Biden admnistration includes 11 million migrants who are living in the U.S. illegally, thousands of asylum-seekers waiting in dangerous Mexican border cities for their cases to be heard, and thousands more DACA recipients, plus their parents and siblings. DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program started under Obama that gives temporary protection from deportation to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

"There are countless stories like this of people who've been terrorized because of the highly aggressive, heavy-handed, relentless efforts by this administration to push people out, to deport them, or to make them so afraid that they'll leave," says Angela Kelley, senior advisor at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

But Kelley adds: "Expectations need to be kept in check. This is not a light switch. It's not going to be flipped and everybody gets to come to the U.S."

White House aide Stephen Miller — the architect of Trump's immigration agenda — says if the president gets a second term he will redouble his efforts to restrict the foreign born from coming to America, by further limiting asylum, expanding the travel ban, and slashing work visas. And he has dire warnings if Biden wins.

"No country on planet Earth has ever conceived of attempting what Joe Biden is proposing," Miller said in a press call with reporters last week. "The idea that you would release every single illegal immigrant who shows up at your country's border. If it were to happen, the working class and middle class of this country would be wiped out. It's that dangerous."

Meanwhile, back in Austin, Hilda Ramirez — approaching her fifth year living on the church grounds — spends her days sewing COVID masks for the homeless, tending a small garden, and anxiously watching Telemundo for immigration news.

Hilda Ramirez and Iván at a shelter in Austin in January 2016.
John Burnett / NPR
Hilda Ramirez and Iván at a shelter in Austin in January 2016.

Iván has now lived a third of his life hiding from the U.S. government. He was able to leave the church to attend public school, before coronavirus restrictions shuttered school doors.

"I would like to go to see a movie. I would like to go to play soccer. I would like to go to a store. I would like to take a walk in the park. I would like to go--I don't know--everywhere," he says.

Whoever occupies the White House next year, Iván Ramirez says he hopes the government will let him and his mother stay in the United States and have normal lives.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.