After nearly three years living in Richmond church to avoid deportation, an immigrant leaves sanctuary

After nearly three years living in Richmond church to avoid deportation, an immigrant leaves sanctuary
Abbie Arevalo-Herrera sits in the sanctuary of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, where she has been living for nearly two years to avoid deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as she seeks asylum. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A Honduran woman who sheltered in the basement of a Richmond church for nearly three years to avoid deportation by ICE has moved back in with her family in Henrico.

Abbie Arevalo and her lawyer cited new guidelines issued by President Joe Biden’s administration, which allowed her to obtain a one-year stay of removal while her asylum case works its way through immigration courts.

“When I came here, I knew no one and I was afraid,” Arevalo, 33, said in a statement thanking the congregation for taking her in. “Today I am happy to have my freedom but am reminded I made good friends here.”

In recent days, news outlets reported similar outcomes from immigrants sheltering in churches around the country.

Arevalo fled Honduras with her daughter in 2013 to escape an abusive husband, seeking protection she said she could not get from her country’s court system.

She was living in Richmond and working as a roofer in 2018 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents ordered her deportation while her case was still pending. Instead of surrendering to ICE, she joined what was then a growing sanctuary movement, in which dozens of immigrants facing deportation took up residence in houses of worship, which ICE classifies as “sensitive locations” and prohibits immigration raids.

For the past 32 months, she lived in the basement of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, which converted Sunday school rooms into bedrooms. In 2019, a year into her stay, she told the Mercury through an interpreter that she had no option other than to “just wait for something to change.”

Last month, that change came when Biden issued an order ending the crackdown on immigration initiated by President Donald Trump, directing ICE to prioritize national security and public safety when making arrests and directing deportation — a step Arevalo’s lawyer, Alina Kilpatrick, said cleared the way for her to leave sanctuary without fear of detention.

She moved back in with her family in Henrico last week.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.