MAPLEWOOD, MISSOURI - After 3½ years of living inside a Missouri church to avoid deportation, Honduran immigrant Alex Garcia finally stepped outside Wednesday, following a promise from President Joe Biden's administration to let him be.
Garcia, a married father of five, was slated for removal from the U.S. in 2017, the first year of President Donald Trump's administration. Days before he would have been deported, Christ Church United Church of Christ in the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood offered sanctuary.
Sara John of the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America said Garcia's decision to leave the church came after Immigration and Customs Enforcement declared that he was no longer a deportation priority, and that the agency would not pursue his detention or removal.
Garcia, in a statement, said he was separated from living with his family for 1,252 days. A crowd of about 100 people cheered as he and his family left the church Wednesday.
"We are not done yet," Garcia said. "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."
In his first weeks as president, Biden has signed several executive orders on immigration issues that undo his predecessor's policies, though several Republican members of Congress are pushing legal challenges.
Myrna Orozco, organizing coordinator at Church World Service, said 33 immigrants remain inside churches across the U.S., a number that should continue to drop.
"We expect it to change in the next couple of weeks as we get more clarity from ICE or [immigrants] get a decision on their cases," Orozco said.
Others who have emerged from sanctuary since Biden took office include Jose Chicas, a 55-year-old El Salvador native, who left a church-owned house in Durham, North Carolina, on January 22. Saheeda Nadeem, 65, of Pakistan, left a Kalamazoo, Michigan, church this month. Edith Espinal, a native of Mexico, left an Ohio church after more than three years.
In Maplewood, Pastor Becky Turner said Garcia has become a valued part of the church family.
"The hearts of all of us at Christ Church are overflowing today," Turner said. "God has answered our prayers for Alex Garcia to live freely, without the threat of being separated from his family."
Garcia's exit came just two days after U.S. Representative Cori Bush, a St. Louis Democrat, announced she was sponsoring a private bill seeking permanent residency for Garcia. Bush said Wednesday that she would still push the bill forward.
"ICE has promised not to deport Alex, and we will stop at nothing to ensure that they keep their promise," Bush said in a statement.
Garcia fled extreme poverty and violence in Honduras, his advocates have said. After entering the U.S. in 2004, he hopped a train that he thought was headed for Houston, but instead ended up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, a town of about 17,000 residents in the southeastern corner of the state.
He landed a job and met his wife, Carly, a U.S. citizen, and for more than a decade they lived quietly with their blended family.
In 2015, Garcia accompanied his sister to an immigration office for a check-in in Kansas City, Missouri, where officials realized Garcia was in the country illegally. He received two one-year reprieves during Barack Obama's administration.