Undocumented Children Leave Philadelphia Church Sanctuary to Attend School

“I’m a little nervous about what’s going to happen today, but I’m also happy to be returning to school,” said 13-year-old Keyri. “I missed it.”

Some kids dread the first day of school, but the Hernandez family woke up at 5 a.m. Monday anxious to start classes.

Carmela Apolonia Hernandez stood in the doorway of North Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate as her kids jumped into a waiting car. She could not go with them because her ankle monitor kept buzzing.

The Hernandez family has lived in sanctuary since mid-December. That ankle device has been with the 36-year-old mother even longer. It was given to her in 2015 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials issued a deportation order for the family.

But six weeks after entering sanctuary, Hernandez is determined to give her kids the most normal life possible, which includes getting them back into the classroom despite the risk of detention.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she told NBC10. "We have a lot of support from the community."

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In reality, things might not end well for the Hernandez family.

They first crossed into the United States from Mexico in 2015 fleeing gun violence that claimed the lives of their relatives. Hernandez’s brother and two of her nephews were gunned down by narcotraffickers when they couldn’t pay extortion fees, she said.

Hernandez feared the same fate if she remained in her hometown.

At the San Diego border, Hernandez voluntarily presented herself to border agents and begged for refuge. Instead, she and her children were arrested, detained for three days and sent to Pennsylvania to be reunited with a relative, an American citizen, pending immigration proceedings.

Recently, Hernandez’s ankle monitor has begun to beep and buzz more frequently. She thinks ICE is trying to wear her down, Hernandez said.

But on Monday morning, Hernandez was flanked by local lawmakers, religious leaders and immigration advocates who would escort her kids out of the church and into greater Philadelphia.

“I’m a little nervous about what’s going to happen today, but I’m also happy to be returning to school,” said 13-year-old Keyri. "I missed it."

The Philadelphia School District is ready to receive the children. Superintendent Dr. William Hite, through a statement, told NBC10 that “every child has the right to access a free and public education that develops their fullest potential.”

“Our schools are safe places to learn, and we welcome every child and family with open arms regardless of background,” he added. “We wish our new students all the best as they begin their first day in our public schools.”

ICE generally avoids enforcement at “sensitive locations,” including schools, medical centers, religious institutions and ceremonies and even public demonstrations, according to immigration officials.

“In an exercise of discretion, ICE has allowed Ms. Hernandez to remain free from custody while finalizing her departure plans,” immigration officials said.

She was ordered to leave the country in December.

By sending the Hernandez children to school, immigration advocates are issuing the latest in a string of snubs against immigration officials.

Last week, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced the appointment of a special counsel within his office who will work closely with prosecutors to reduce deportations for low-level and non-violent offenders. Meanwhile, Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted last week that he would not visit a White House that “vilifies immigrants.”

And advocates with the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia are "ready to mobilize" should ICE arrest the Hernandez children, according to community organizer Sheila Quintana. The organization has reached out to Democratic lawmakers, including Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

But inside the Church of the Advocate, Hernandez seemed more like a concerned mom on her children's first day of school. 

“I told [my kids] to stay strong and not to worry because everything is going to be OK,” she said.

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