Austin (KXAN) — For three years, 13-year-old Ivan Ramirez and his mother, Hilda Ramirez-Mendez, 31, have called St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin their home. But recent national rhetoric about immigration and the threat of nationwide-deportation raids have compounded the daily fears they face, even from inside the walls of the church.
The deportation raids promised by President Donald Trump were to begin Sunday and target around two thousand undocumented immigrants
It’s expected that Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, New Orleans and San Francisco will be targeted in these raids.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy defines places like schools or places of worship as “sensitive locations.” ICE says there are limited circumstances when they can make raids at “sensitive locations,” and doing so is generally avoided.
Austin is not one of the cities where the raids initial raids were expected to happen but Pastor Jim Rigby with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church said because his church houses an immigrant family, they have to be prepared for the possibility of coming in contact with immigration officials. Rigby said he is not sure yet what his church will do if larger-scale deportation raids come to the Austin area.
He also noted that these raids and the way federal officials have been talking about immigration have impacted the two people calling his church home.
“With these things happening I’m kind of scared to go outside because I’m scared for immigration to get me or something like that,” said Ivan. The boy loves soccer and playing outside with his friends, but as of late he’s been staying indoors.
He explained that while his immigration case is still in progress, his mother has been told that hers doesn’t have a chance. So Ramirez has been attending school and playing on a local soccer team — he can walk to the store or go play with friends — but his mom cannot leave the confines of the church.
Ramirez-Mendez said her view of the outside world comes from the window panes of the church. The ICE raids President Trump’s administration has promised, have struck fear in her and she regularly has nightmares about being taken by immigration officials.
Ramirez-Mendez and her son say they feel happy and protected at the church. The congregation has welcomed them in, painting pictures of them, bringing them food, and displaying a portrait photo of them in the entryway.
But Ramirez-Mendez said she’s still sad about what she and her son went through trying to get to America. What she wants most is to be able to live freely, to walk around freely in the U.S. with her son.
Hilda and Ivan’s story
Ramirez-Mendez and her son are from Guatemala and the rest of their family still lives there. In the U.S., there is more protection for women and children, she explained and in Guatemala, kids her son’s age were often “used to do bad things”
Ramirez remembers his mother working a lot in Guatemala and coming home tired.
“It’s really bad, scary, really bad,” he recalled.
So the two took a bus from Guatemala to Mexico and a coyote helped them cross the U.S. border. The coyote kept them in a house with many other people who were trying to cross and the pair were passed from one person to another until they reached the Rio Grande River. They crossed the border in inflatable rafts and when they reached the other side, Ramirez-Mendez said they wanted to run, but were caught and searched by Border Patrol officials.
They were detained in a place for four days, an experience she describes as “horrible,” “scary” and “very cold.” There were no blankets, she said, and that babies also being held there had skin that looked purple because they were so cold.
Ramirez-Mendez and her son were then taken to a detention facility where they were held for 11 months.
“Thank God we were together because I was very scared that they were going to separate me from Ivan,” she said.
A refugee organization helped them leave the detention facility and took care of them for about seven months.
The refugee organization helped to put her in touch with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, where her son had been attending bible school.
For the first year Ramirez-Mendez lived in the church, her case had deferred adjudication, so she was able to go outside. But later on, Ramirez-Mendez’s attorney called to tell her that her immigration case “was finished” and that immigration officials would be coming to take her. From that point forward she has stayed inside.
Last week, she was mailed a letter by ICE at the church asking her to pay more than $300,000 — an amount the church believes to be $500 for each day she has been in the United States without documentation. Other undocumented immigrants have reported receiving fines like this from ICE as well.
Ramirez-Mendez said she is discussing her options with an attorney and meanwhile, she can’t go to the store or even take her son to the doctor.
She makes dolls with fabric her sister sent her from Guatemala and while she can’t take work outside the church, she hopes to sell the dolls and earrings.
“When I grow up, I want to be a soccer player,” her son said. “And I play soccer and sometimes I score [or] I do something cool, and I wish my mom could see that, but no, because she’s here.”
Ramirez is about to start middle school. He said he doesn’t talk about his immigration status much but that a few of his peers know about his situation.
“I think living in a church is kind of hard, because it’s not a house, and you see outside, you want to go outside, but you can’t,” he said.
To those hearing about his story, Ramirez wants them to think back to when they were thirteen years old.
“Think what they would do if they were in this case, or think what would they do if they were my mom, ” he said. “Just think.”
Pastor Jim Rigby acknowledges that churches have their limitations when it comes to housing people.
“It’s very hard for the people staying in sanctuaries around the country, under the kind of oppression that exists now there’s a kind of despair,” Rigby said.
But in his mind, taking in this mother and child to live in their church was both the right thing to do both as a Christian and as an American.
“We’ve given them room and board basically, and what they’ve given us is a vision, a prophetic vision of the world that’s shared by humanity and not dominated by anyone,” Rigby said. “It reminds you of what a human soul looks like.”
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is part of the Austin Sanctuary Network, a group of organizations that have committed to offering sanctuary space and support for migrants.
Chris Jimmerson of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin said that their church has been housing a man from El Salvador for the past two years. In the past, they have also housed a woman from Guatemala. At present, they don’t have any more room to house migrants, but they plan to continue helping migrants get the resources they need.
“I think we’re called upon to love our neighbors and take care of strangers in our lands and so it’s part of our religious traditions to be in solidarity to be with them,” Jimmerson said.
Pastor Rigby says he’s surprised that more religious organizations have not come forward to open their doors to immigrants in recent years. Rigby said he wouldn’t be surprised if there are more in the Austin area that he’s not aware of.
“People are in harm’s way, and the communities of faith should be the first to open their doors,” Rigby said.
“There are two Americas, there’s always been two Americas,” he said. “One is the search for human rights, and the other is the search for power, wealth and empire, and every one of us is choosing right now.”