'Finding Sanctuary': Undocumented Guatemalan Mother Shares Struggles To Keep Her Family Together

Daniela and Dulce
Daniela and Dulce balance on the sanctuary rail inside the chapel of Holyrood Church. “I like this church, but I miss our house,” Dulce says. “There, we have a big yard with chickens, and in the summer my mother sets up a plastic pool.” Cinthya Santos Briones

Amanda Morales, an undocumented woman who publicly took sanctuary in an upper Manhattan church last August, is sharing her story in the 5-part biweekly multimedia chronicle series, “Finding Sanctuary.”

For the past six months, photojournalist Cinthya Santos Briones, journalist Laura Gottesdiener, and anthropologist Malav Kanuga have documented the lives of 34-year-old Morales and her three U.S.-born children, ages 3 to 10, and their efforts to make a new home in a church that is part prison, part refuge, in the face of an unpredictable future. They have witnessed the happy moments and the hard ones, the despair and resilience, the frustration and hope.

Morales, who fled the violence of Guatemala nearly 15 years ago, was living and working on Long Island until the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) began ramping up deportations under the Trump administration. Amanda had her first scheduled ICE check-in under President Donald Trump, after she presented her Guatemalan passport to the police, she was the passenger in a car accident. This interaction issued an order for removal.

The series roots her story in this broader political context and provides a window onto the new sanctuary movement, an interfaith network of congregations and activists helping immigrants resist detention and deportation. “My friends all asked me: ‘Amanda, what are you going to do?’ ‘What are you going to do with your case?’ ‘What are you going to do?’” Amanda recalls. “And I told them: God has the last word.”

The first installment, “The Walls of this Church Are the Only Thing Standing Between Amanda Morales and Deportation,” introduces the family’s story. The second, “Once Upon a Time There Was a Girl Whose Mother Was About to Be Deported,”  is a narrative video by Amanda’s 10-year-old daughter, Dulce Carvajal, the eldest of the three siblings.

  • The Walls of this Church Are the Only Thing Standing Between Amanda Morales and Deportation

Episode 1: The story of one undocumented mother’s struggle to keep her family together. Holyrood Church congregation members bless Amanda Morales, who attends the Spanish-language mass every Sunday at noon. “Amanda is the force of our community, the face of many mothers who are being deported and separated from their children,” says the Rev. Luis Barrios. “We bless Amanda with our hands and souls.” Cinthya Santos Briones

  • Once Upon a Time There Was a Girl Whose Mother Was About to Be Deported

Forthcoming installments will incorporate film, photography, and audio to reveal life in an interminable state of limbo, molded by regressive policies that are upending lives and literally ripping families apart. The series will showcase the bravery and dedication of a broad community of players coming together around the family.

It will also offer Morales’ personal reflections on the lives she left behind, first in Guatemala, then on Long Island; her fear of returning to the former and dream of returning to the latter. “Being enclosed, I feel like I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m not breathing anymore. I want to scream, I want to feel free,” says Morales, who rarely sees direct sunlight, and has never been inside her daughters’ new elementary school.

According to The Nation, a leading source of progressive politics and culture, sanctuary churches have reported being surveilled by federal agents, and ICE has begun detaining people at other government-designated “sensitive locations,” such as schools.

It's reported that Morales spends her days trapped inside and often sits around the kitchen table with a handful of women from the neighborhood. They all watch Dominican television host Francisca Lachapel’s comedy sketches, share recipes and health tips, and talk about the latest news.

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Lifestyle Reporter

Shirley Gomez has been exposed to many aspects of the art world. Besides being a Fashion Journalist, she studied Fashion Styling and Fashion Styling for Men at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, Interior Design at UNIBE and Fashion Design at ITSMJ Fashion School in the Dominican Republic. She worked as a Fashion Journalist, Fashion Stylist and Social Media Manager at one of the most recognized magazines in the Dominican Republic, Oh! Magazine, as an occasional Entertainment Journalist, of the prestigious newspaper “Listín Diario”, as well as a fashion collaborator of a radio show aired in 100.9 FM SuperQ. When Shirley is not writing you can find her listening Demi Lovato or Beyonce's songs, decorating her apartment or watching Family Feud.