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During Trump Presidency, Sanctuary Immigrants Take Refuge In Texas Church


Millions of immigrants view Joe Biden as a sort of savior if he gets in the White House. President Trump is promising an even bigger crackdown if he gets a second term. NPR's John Burnett brings us this story of a mother and a son who have been hiding in a church in Austin, Texas, for the entirety of Trump's presidency.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A taste of home - some fried plantains and tamales wrapped in banana leaves, a moment of joy in a bleak existence.


BURNETT: You see - Hilda Ramirez and her 14-year-old son Ivan have chosen to live in a sort of cozy prison for more than 4 1/2 years. A progressive Presbyterian church in North Austin has given them sanctuary from deportation. Agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement generally do not make arrests inside churches. So mother and son are ensconced in the Sunday school-wing wing of the church, believing that if they leave the property, they'll be picked up.

HILDA RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) It's hard to have two fears. I'm afraid they'll separate me from my son, that immigration agents will come at any minute. And I'm afraid of COVID, that I won't be able to go to the doctor.

BURNETT: Ramirez says she and Ivan fled her abusive father in Guatemala five years ago, made it to the Texas border and asked for asylum from the Obama-Biden administration. But she was rejected, and they took refuge in the church. To turn the screw even tighter, ICE has imposed a civil fine on her for $60,000 for failing to depart the United States, a sum she has no way to pay.

H RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) If I could vote, I would prefer Joe Biden, because though he has deported lots of people, he was never as bad as Donald Trump, who has separated mothers from their children.

BURNETT: Biden pledges to roll back Trump's harsh immigration crackdown and reenact more lenient Obama-era policies, such as restoring the asylum process and legalizing unauthorized migrants. In her hopes for a Biden administration, Hilda Ramirez is articulating the aspirations of literally millions of immigrants inside and outside the U.S. Angela Kelley is a senior adviser at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

ANGELA KELLEY: So there's countless stories like this of people who have been terrorized because of the highly aggressive, heavy-handed, relentless efforts by this administration to push people out, to deport them or to make them so afraid that they'll leave.

BURNETT: The universe of migrants expecting relief from a Biden White House includes 11 million who are here in the U.S. illegally, thousands of asylum seekers waiting in Mexican border cities for their cases to be heard and thousands more DACA recipients. These are immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children who've been given temporary protection from deportation. White House aide Stephen Miller says the Trump administration plans to double down on restrictive immigration policies if Trump gets a second term. And he had dire warnings if Biden wins.


STEPHEN MILLER: No country on planet Earth has ever conceived of attempting what Joe Biden is proposing - the idea that you would release every single illegal immigrant who shows up at your country's border. If it were to happen, the working class and middle class of this country would be wiped out. It's that dangerous.

BURNETT: Meanwhile, back in Austin, 14-year-old Ivan Ramirez has lived a third of his life with his mother, hiding from the U.S. government inside the church. Recently, he was granted a child's visa, but he remains afraid to go out.

IVAN RAMIREZ: I mean, I would like to go to see a movie, but - and I would like to go to play soccer. I would like to go to a store. I would like to go - I don't know - everywhere.

BURNETT: He asks whoever occupies the White House next year, he'd like to live like a normal teenager.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.


As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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