MAPLEWOOD • Honduran immigrant, husband and father of five Alex Garcia entered a church in Maplewood in 2017 to avoid immediate removal by immigration authorities. For three and a half years he has remained confined to the church’s grounds, tended to by a community of faith and legal organizations seeking to keep Garcia united with his American family.
On Wednesday, Garcia walked out free and unencumbered from that threat of deportation that has kept him confined and separated from his family for so long. He was finally able to emerge and reunite with his family after leaving the building that has been his safe space these past years.
Garcia stepped onto the sun-lit steps of Christ Church United Church of Christ on a spring-like afternoon fighting back emotions as he thanked everyone in attendance.
“Today, we celebrate my leaving sanctuary and reuniting with my family after being separated for 1,252 days,” Garcia said to a cheering crowd of supporters. “Because of all of your support and the new administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement made a promise that I am no longer a priority of deportation.”
Garcia walked free with his family thanks to a change in policies taking place at President Joe Biden’s direction. Last week the president ordered ICE to focus on people who represent a threat to national security and those arrested for violent crimes. The order places Garcia in a low priority status with ICE, which has allowed him to leave sanctuary without the fear of being detained or removed by enforcement agents.
One of Garcia’s attorneys, Javad Khazaeili, reminded listeners that much work remained to be done going forward. Although Garcia’s change in status is a step in the right direction, more steps need to be taken to allow him to become a U.S. citizen.
“After many conversations with ICE, they explicitly told me that Alex is not a priority, that they will not be using federal resources … to try to rip a family apart when they focus on people who are really hurting our communities,” Khazaeli said.
A spokesman for ICE declined to make any statements on the record regarding Garcia’s case or any other “law enforcement matter.”
The Feb. 18 order reverses a hardline immigration stance by then-President Donald Trump that called for the immediate removal of any undocumented person in the country, regardless of background. The Trump-era policies have had devastating effects on thousands of families in the past four years.
Garcia is not the only immigrant taking refuge under church sanctuary: About 50 other immigrants have opted for this unusual form of deportation prevention. Sanctuary grants protection from arrest or deportation so long as the person remains in the church property. Because the person cannot leave, sanctuary can quickly feel like incarceration of sorts.
Some of the so-called “sanctuary leaders” have already begun to emerge from their safe spaces, and more are sure to follow given the new policy.
Garcia’s story had garnered national attention in recent years. His ongoing fight often seemed to be buried in bureaucracy and legal dead ends.
Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office has given renewed hope to millions of undocumented people living in fear of being removed from their life here in the United States.
Garcia fled his native Honduras trying to escape violence and poverty. He traveled to the U.S. border in 2000, where he was detained and returned to Honduras. In 2004 he returned and was able to enter undetected. He found a new life in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and married Carly, a U.S. citizen. He is the father of five minor children. In 2015 he was accompanying his sister to an ICE appointment in Kansas City when he was identified as having been previously deported in 2000.
Garcia cooperated with annual check-ins with immigration authorities until 2017, when his reprieve was denied and he was ordered to leave. Feeling he had no other option to prevent his deportation, he entered sanctuary at Christ Church UCC in Maplewood.
Although Biden has already issued several executive orders undoing his predecessor’s policies, all parties involved agree that the struggle is not over for Garcia.
Garcia said Wednesday, “There is still so much work that has to be done, and I look forward to being able to join you all out there in the community and continue to fight for my permanent protection.”