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ST. LOUIS — U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay on Friday introduced legislation that he said could free Alex Garcia, a Honduran refugee currently residing in sanctuary at a church in Maplewood.

If passed, the bill would change Garcia’s immigration status to permanent legal resident of the U.S. and would rescind all orders of removal, said Clay, a Democrat.

Garcia, 38, has been the subject of a protracted legal battle with the Department of Homeland Security, which has tried to have him deported.

“Alex Garcia and his brave family have suffered enough,” Clay said in a news release.

Garcia, one of about 50 undocumented immigrants living in sanctuary in churches in the U.S., has been housed by Christ Church United Church of Christ since 2017. A construction worker from Honduras, he has called Poplar Bluff home since 2004. He married Carly Zuniga, a U.S. citizen, in May 2010; the couple have five children, all born in the U.S.

Garcia, the oldest of seven siblings, said Friday in an interview that he first tried to cross into the U.S. around 2000, when he was about 20. He said he was motivated to do so by crime and poverty in his home town, about two hours from Tegucigalpa. But he was caught by Border Patrol agents and issued an order of removal.

Four years later, he tried again, this time successfully. For more than a decade, he remained under the radar of immigration officials. But in 2015, he accompanied his sister to an appointment at a U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement office in Kansas City. There, investigators turned their questions toward Garcia and linked him to the 2000 deportation order, which was still in effect.

He was detained for a few weeks before the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project, or MICA, an immigrant rights organization, successfully applied for a stay of removal, good for one year. A second stay was offered the following year. But in the summer of 2017, the request for Garcia to stay in the country was denied. He was told to report Sept. 21, 2017, at an ICE office to be deported.

Out of legal options, immigrant advocates suggested Garcia move into a church, where he would be shielded from federal agents. As of Friday, he’d been in sanctuary 659 days.

Nicole Cortes, an attorney representing Garcia, said “private immigration bills” of this kind haven’t passed in years.

“The reality is it’s a huge uphill battle but that it’s one that we believe is very important now,” said Cortes, co-director of MICA. “The current policy framework provides no path for Alex’s permanent residency. None. … The introduction of this bill today opens a door that was never open to Alex before.”

The Rev. Rebecca Turner, pastor of Christ Church United, described the bill as a “good step” forward in a long path ahead.

“It’s been almost two years that he’s been living in a church, so the whole family is very frustrated by that,” she said. “It’s been a long wait to see any progress on his case. He deserves to be reunited with his family.”

At a church press conference, Garcia sat in the middle of his supporters. “I feel happy to receive the news,” he said in Spanish. “But I know that I will be much happier when I am outside with my family.”

His wife, Carly, 31, vowed to keep bringing attention to immigration issues.

“As a wife, I am not done fighting for my husband,” she said. “I made a vow to stand beside him no matter what, and I am going to do that. As a U.S. citizen, I am going to stand up for others that are going through the same issue as us, living in sanctuary, their children not being able to enjoy their lives with their families.

“And most of all, I am going to bring awareness to the raids that are happening that are separating families. Our government is creating orphans by taking parents away. They are creating single-family homes.”

She thanked Clay for his help with the legislation. She said U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, the Republican congressman who represents Poplar Bluff, hasn’t given her family the “time of day” on the matter.

Congressman Smith’s office had offered the Garcia family information on different immigration processes that may be available to them and contacted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to understand the status of the case, Mark Roman, Smith’s chief of staff, said Friday by email. They were told that Garcia’s case was before the Board of Immigration Appeals within the Executive Office of Immigration Review.

“As it is a private legal case, our office was advised that beyond that initial inquiry it would not be appropriate to attempt to influence the outcome of the case,” Roman said. “Rep. Smith does not support legislation which ignores our country’s immigration laws and rewards those who enter illegally.”

Clay, who has been in touch with the Garcia family for months, filed his bill ahead of this weekend’s move by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to round up and deport undocumented migrants in nine major U.S. cities, not including St. Louis.

Clay said ICE raids “against innocent immigrants and refugees do nothing to enhance our national security, but they do great damage to children by traumatizing them for no good reason. As history has demonstrated, refugees and immigrants make our country stronger, culturally richer, and add to the diverse fabric of America.”

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