'This is a prison': Mother living in church shares what it's like to face deportation

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, Manhattan (WPIX) — An undocumented mother has spent nearly six months relying on the kindness of friends to pick up her children from school, day in and day out.

They take Amanda Morales' three children to appointments at the doctor and to every other event on their busy schedules, all while Morales stands helplessly at the front door of an old church in Washington Heights. Morales,  a Guatemalan immigrant with no authorization to live in the U.S., lives in a church now because she's terrified by the possibility of deportation.

"Since the new president has entered office, everything changed," Morales said.

Photo: WPIX

The federal government first issued a deportation order for Morales 14 years ago. Her first scheduled meeting with immigration officials under the Trump Administration came with instructions; she was told to bring her passport a one-way ticket back to Guatemala.

But Morales couldn't do it. She's been at Holyrood Church with her children, all U.S. citizens, since August of 2017.

"Being locked inside isn't easy," she said. "I'm not with my kids at school. I couldn't take them to the doctor o take them to the park.

Morales does not have a criminal record, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials tell PIX11 there are no immigrant classes or categories which are exempt from enforcement. Anyone who violates immigration laws can potentially be arrested, detained, or deported.

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Field Office Director Jorge Field, 53, arrests an Iranian immigrant in San Clemente, California, U.S., May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson SEARCH "NICHOLSON ARREST" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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“ICE continues to focus enforcement efforts against public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws, including those who illegally re-entered the country after being removed and immigration fugitives ordered removed by federal immigration judges," an ICE spokesperson said.

So Morales panicked and hurriedly moved her family into the church's library.

"I wish that I had a pair of wings so I could go out and fly away," she said. "This is a prison. I cannot go out."

About half of the nearly 600,000 undocumented immigrants living in New York have been living here for a least a decade, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Many of them have built lives in the U.S.

They're an important part of the economy, Rosita Romero, executive director of the Dominican Women’s Development Center, said.

"They're washing dishes, being in restaurants. They're doing domestic work. They're doing factory work," Romero said. "They are the ones doing the home health aid."

Morales hopes her lawyers can successfully argue she deserves asylum and a chance for life in America - this time by the books.

What does she want the most?

"To be free."

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