The Fear—and Hope—of Living in Sanctuary

After fleeing domestic violence in Guatemala, I’ve been living inside a Texas church for the past four years. I’m exhausted, but I won’t stop fighting.

Hilda Ramirez has been living in the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin for nearly four years.
Hilda Ramirez has been living in the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin for nearly four years. Isabela Dias

After fleeing domestic violence in Guatemala, I’ve been living inside a Texas church for the past four years. I’m exhausted, but I won’t stop fighting.

Hilda Ramirez has been living in the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin for nearly four years.
Hilda Ramirez has been living in the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin for nearly four years. Isabela Dias

Hilda Ramirez is an asylum-seeker from Guatemala who came to the United States in 2014 after fleeing domestic violence. Ramirez and her son, Ivan, now 13, were detained for 11 months in ICE’s Karnes County Residential Center in South Texas. After their release in July 2015, they lived in a shelter in Austin for a couple of months, during which time Ramirez wore an ankle bracelet and had regular check-ins with ICE. Because an immigration judge denied her asylum case, Ramirez has a pending deportation order.

In February 2016, fearing immigration raids, she decided to seek protection by moving into the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin (it is against ICE’s policy to enforce immigration laws inside churches). Ramirez was previously granted deferred action, a temporary delay of deportation, but in March of this year, ICE denied her an extension. Recently, Congressman Joaquin Castro showed his support for Ramirez and Ivan by introducing a private bill to give them permanent status or a visa. Ramirez and Ivan are among 50 undocumented immigrants nationwide publicly known to be living in sanctuary. The church has been their home for almost four years. As told to Isabela Dias.

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Last night, I had a dream that I was in the church, but the church looked different. It was made out of wood boards and it didn’t have a roof. There were haystacks everywhere, like a stable. As I was walking through a path, someone asked me: “How do you feel being here?”

“I don’t feel safe,” I said. “I’m scared.” Suddenly, I heard a helicopter hovering and armed policemen started coming down through ropes. “Get out of the church or we’re going to shoot,” they said. When I woke up, I looked around, and my heart was beating fast. It felt so real.

Sometimes I talk to other people who are in sanctuary about how hard it is. We all feel the same way: We are stressed, we have headaches, our bones ache. We get anxious and we can’t sleep. Or sometimes we sleep too much. When I oversleep, I wake up at 11 in the morning and make my coffee, as usual. Then I sit down by the window and look outside. But most of the time, I stay in my room. I’ll watch TV, but I try not to watch the news too much, because it gives me nightmares.

When I’m doing arts and crafts and I’m making my little dolls, I think of how I wish I had those clothes when I was a kid. I didn’t have a pair of shoes until I was nine. Growing up, I used to tend to the borregos (sheep) on my father’s land, and I loved it because I loved nature. I also like the flavors of Guatemala. In my village, we only eat beans with epazote (an herb to give the food flavor), onions, garlic, and tortillas. Whenever there was a celebration, like the Day of the Dead, we would eat chicken. But during the Holy Week, we could only eat bread. I remember how my father would buy large baskets of bread, and people from the other side of the village would come with their horses and baskets to celebrate.

When I was outside, those were my happiest moments. Inside the home, there was always domestic violence. “Why don’t you go somewhere else, mamá?” I used to ask my mother when I found my father lying by the woods, drunk and dirty. “Where am I supposed to go?” she asked in return. And so she stayed. There is a lot of machismo in my village. If you marry someone, you have to stay with them forever, even if they mistreat you. Most women in my village are raped and there’s nothing they can do. They prefer to hide and not say anything because instead of punishing the rapist, they punish you. That’s why many women want to come to the United States. They want their children to be good, not bad. And they want them to have a better life.

[In Karnes City], I thought my son, Ivan, and I would be detained for the rest of our lives. I cried and asked God to help me get out of there. They tortured us with cold air conditioning. The water had a lot of chlorine in it, and there were insects in the food. Many people fell sick; the children had fevers. When I ask Ivan about that time, sometimes he says he doesn’t remember. It hurts him to remember.

The day we left, I was sure they were deporting me. One of the officers looked exactly like the president: enojado, angry. After so much time in detention, surviving hunger and cold, how could they send me back? You’ve mistreated me, insulted me, mocked me, I told the officer. I wanted to tell them to keep Ivan because I didn’t want to put him in danger. I’d rather someone adopted him. So many things went through my head. I called my lawyer and I only had three minutes to talk because my money was running out. She told me I was getting out and they were going to put a bracelet on my ankle. I didn’t care. I was happy. But I was still afraid that ICE had some evil plan.

I was always being watched. Immigration authorities would come visit me every two weeks in the shelter and I had to go to my check-ins. Whenever I left the shelter, the ankle bracelet’s battery died really fast. I charged it every night, but when I forgot, it started talking to me: “Please, connect your bracelet.” It was hard to live like that. When they started arresting everyone whose cases had been denied, my lawyer told me immigration agents could come get me any time. But it wasn’t my fault, I thought. I didn’t have a lawyer and they didn’t give me an interpreter who spoke my language [Mam]. “Are you asking for political asylum?” they asked me. I didn’t know what political asylum or domestic violence was. I didn’t understand anything and that’s why they denied my case. They didn’t give me a chance.

I used to think all the time that I would like to be a bird. I think about how they rise every morning to sing when the sun comes out, and it gives me hope. If I were free, I would take the bus and get to know the names of the streets and the numbers. I would learn how to find my way around. The church is wonderful, and I’m grateful for all they have done for me. Without them, I might be deported or dead. But I would like to have my own place. I would like to have a small house with two bedrooms and a tiny kitchen made just for my size. I’ve always liked small houses.

My son is the reason I’m here. He’s the reason for everything. If it’s necessary, I’ll stay here another four years. I don’t care about time. I want people to understand that sanctuary is about fighting for your rights and asking for help to do so. I’m not going to stop fighting.

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Isabela Dias is the fall 2019 editorial fellow at the Texas Observer. She was previously a reporting fellow with Pacific Standard magazine, reporting on immigration and human rights. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, Slate, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. She's a graduate of Columbia University.


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