Immigrant mother and three children in church sanctuary stricken by COVID-19

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — An undocumented immigrant family that has lived nearly three years in Philadelphia church sanctuary to avoid deportation has been stricken by the coronavirus.

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, 39, and her eldest children — teenagers Fidel, Keyri, and Yoselin — suffered severe COVID-19 symptoms in late spring and early summer, and continue to fight for their recovery inside the Germantown Mennonite Church.

Hernandez has memory loss and pain in her lungs. Fidel, 18, still has a cough, cold symptoms, and aches in his bones. Yoselin, 14, has trouble breathing.

“Thank God we survived, but we still have problems,” Keyri, 15, wrote in a letter asking government officials to help free the family. “I am afraid of becoming infectious again and passing the virus on to the community.”

The youngest child, Edwin, 11, does not appear to have become ill.

Isolation inside a church might seem a safe way to avoid the virus, which has killed more than 164,000 people in the United States. Supporters said they suspect the children may have been infected at school, which they had been able to attend while in sanctuary, before the Philadelphia School District closed in mid-March.

Hernandez’s only known time outside was on a day in 2018 when she went to seek answers from Sen. Bob Casey at his Center City office.

On Wednesday morning, the children plan to hold a vigil in front of the Germantown Mennonite Church, where the family lives. They’ll share letters they’ve written to members of Congress about living with COVID-19 in sanctuary, and about the urgency of their leaving the church during the pandemic to more easily get medical care.

Most people with coronavirus are no longer contagious 10 days after their symptoms resolve, according to Harvard Medical School. The same is true for people who test positive but never develop symptoms. But there are documented exceptions, and some experts still recommend 14 days of isolation.

The problem with general rules on contagion and transmission, Harvard said, is the marked differences in how the virus behaves from person to person — which is why everyone should wear a mask and keep a physical distance of at least six feet.

The children, supported by church members and advocacy groups including the Free Migration Project and New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, will ask Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation to help them freely leave sanctuary and get outside health care.

“Carmela’s experience demonstrates the severe impact (the virus) has had on the immigrant community,” the activist groups said in a statement. “Fighting extremist anti-immigrant policies, lacking access to health care, and not being eligible for any COVID relief benefits has pushed this family fighting to stay together to the brink.” Given the uncertainty around the long-term health effects of COVID-19 and the possibility of re-infection, “winning Carmela’s freedom has become even more urgent.”

At the height of their illness, the statement said, Hernandez worried that Fidel and Keyri’s fevers would require hospitalization. She feared that if she died, no one would be able to care for her children.

The Hernandez’ have spent more time in sanctuary than any of the four families to take sanctuary in Philadelphia in recent times, and their freedom has become the cause of immigration and church activists across the Philadelphia area.

What has become years of vigils, marches, rallies, political outreach and public pleas have not moved the federal government to grant the family permission to stay in the United States.

The family fled to the United States from Mexico in August 2015, after being threatened by the same drug criminals who had killed Hernandez’ brother and two nephews. They were denied asylum, and took sanctuary only days before their Dec. 15, 2017 deportation date.

Sanctuary is both a solution and a problem, offering families protection from immigration authorities while alerting those same enforcement agencies to their exact location. It comes without time limit or certainty.

In late November 2017, Hernandez was knocking on the doors of churches, begging for protection. ICE guidelines dissuade agents from arresting immigrants at designated “sensitive locations,” such as churches, schools, and hospitals.

The family spent about a year inside the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia before moving to the Mennonite church.

A second family, Oneita and Clive Thompson, originally from Jamaica, have spent nearly two years in sanctuary inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, fighting to avoid removal. Suyapa Reyes and her four children, of Honduras, were able to legally leave that church in March after 18 months inside.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer