A Honduran immigrant who has spent three and a half years living inside a Missouri church to avoid deportation has finally stepped outside.
It comes as President Joe Biden lifted a freeze on green cards issued by Donald Trump during the pandemic that lawyers said was blocking most legal immigration to the United States.
The former President, last spring, halted the issuance of green cards until the end of 2020 in the name of protecting the Covid damaged job market — a reason he gave to achieve many of the cuts to legal immigration that had evaded him before the pandemic hit.
Alex Garcia left the church in suburban St Louis after a promise from US President Joe Biden’s administration to let him be.
Mr Garcia is a married father of five. He was due for removal from the US in 2017, but Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood gave him sanctuary.
Sara John, of the St, Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, said Mr Garcia’s emergence came after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declared it would not pursue his detention or removal.
Mr Garcia, braced by a hand on his shoulder from a son and fighting back tears, told a cheering crowd of about 100 people that he was separated from living with his family for 1,252 days.
“Hi everyone,” Mr Garcia said. “Thank you everyone for showing support for me and my family. Today is the day I’m going to get out of sanctuary after three years and a half.”
Reading from a written statement, he added: “We are not done yet. There is still so much work that has to be done.”
In his first weeks as president, Mr 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, organising co-ordinator at Church World Service, said 33 immigrants remain inside churches across the US and that number 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,” Ms Orozco said.
Others who have emerged from sanctuary since Mr Biden took office include Jose Chicas, a 55-year-old El Salvador native, who left a church-owned house in North Carolina on January 22. Saheeda Nadeem, a 65-year-old from Pakistan, left a Michigan church this month, while Edith Espinal, a native of Mexico, left an Ohio church after more than three years.
In Maplewood, emotion spilled out during a brief ceremony marking Mr Garcia’s departure.
The church’s bell tolled, while mayor Barry Greenberg’s voice broke as he told Mr Garcia he could not grant him US citizenship but he could make him an honorary citizen of Maplewood.
He presented a key to the city that Mr Garcia’s young daughter immediately took out of the box to play with.
Mr Garcia fled extreme poverty and violence in Honduras, his advocates have said. After entering the US in 2004, he hopped on 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 south-eastern corner of the state.
He landed a job and met his wife, Carly, a US citizen, and for more than a decade they lived quietly with their family.
In 2015, Mr Garcia accompanied his sister to an immigration office for a check-in in Kansas City, Missouri, where officials realised he was in the country illegally. He received two one-year reprieves during Barack Obama’s administration.