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Honduran immigrant and father marks three years of sanctuary in Maplewood church

Honduran immigrant and father marks three years of sanctuary in Maplewood church

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MAPLEWOOD — A week of action marking a three-year fight to prevent deportation of Honduran refugee Alex Garcia began Sunday morning with a livestreamed worship service at the Maplewood church where he has sought sanctuary.

Christ Church Pastor Rebecca Turner used her sermon to tell how the fight began and how it will continue.

Three years ago, she had just become the congregation’s full-time permanent pastor, she recalled. That day, she used her sermon to pave the way for their journey together.

“I asked you the question, ‘How will we know what God wants us to do?’” Turner said. “I said no matter what plans we might make as a church, we really just had to pay attention to who came to our door, who called on the telephone, because God was going to come right to our door and let us know what to do.”

The next morning, Turner got a call from Sara John, with St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA). John told her the group had a man requesting sanctuary.

“I gulped really hard, and I heard my own sermon playing in my ears,” Turner said. “I knew that I could not say no.”

The congregation prepared a place for him having no idea what saying yes would mean. She told those who asked that he could stay as long as needed.

“Three years,” Turner said. “And oh, how those three years have changed us. Now I think sanctuary describes who we are much more than what we do.”

Garcia has lived in the U.S., where he married, had five children and made a life for his family, for 16 years. On Monday, he will have lived the last three of those years inside Christ Church United Church of Christ.

Immigration authorities have repeatedly rejected pleas from family, friends and supporters, including U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay and Maplewood Mayor Barry Greenberg, that Garcia be allowed to remain in the U.S. with his wife, Carly, and their children.

“It’s been exhausting,” John said. “We never expected that it would be easy, but we thought that justice would come a little more swiftly than it has.”

The committee will mark the three-year fight with a virtual “Week of Action” to tell the Garcias’ story, document changes in U.S. immigration policies in recent years and explore new ways to appeal the case. Online events include a “Vigil for Alex” at 7 p.m. Sunday, anda sneak preview of a documentary about Garcia’s plight and discussion with the filmmaker at 6 p.m. Monday.

“We’re praying that this will be the year that we will win,” John said.

The group also wants to gather 1,095 reasons Garcia should be allowed to stay — one reason for every day Garcia has lived in the church.

Garcia is one of about 45 undocumented immigrants living in sanctuary in U.S. churches, based on a 2011 ICE policy designating “sensitive locations” where officials would not likely enforce immigration laws. The locations include churches, schools and hospitals.

Garcia’s stay in Christ Church is among the longest of any sanctuary, John said.

A construction worker from Honduras, Garcia, 38, crossed into the U.S. after fleeing crime and poverty in his hometown in 2004. Honduras has long been considered among the most dangerous countries in Central America amid political instability and violent crime.

In Poplar Bluff, Garcia found a job, married and started a family.

But in 2015, he caught the attention of immigration officials when he accompanied his sister to an immigration check-in appointment at an ICE office in Kansas City. There, he was linked to a deportation order from 2000, when he had first tried to cross into the U.S. at age 19.

With the help of immigration attorneys, Garcia was twice granted a one-year reprieve to stay in the country.

But in 2017, under a new presidential administration, his third request was denied. Rather than turn himself in for deportation, Garcia sought refuge in Maplewood.

His family has since regularly made the 150-mile drive to be with him in his small apartment at the church. Meanwhile, advocates, including Clay and Greenberg, and even Poplar Bluff neighbors who consider themselves supporters of President Donald Trump’s strict immigration policies, have fought to keep Garcia in the U.S.

A bill introduced last year by Clay would change Garcia’s immigration status to permanent legal resident and would rescind all orders of removal. The Maplewood City Council has approved a resolution calling on state and federal officials to stop his deportation.

In February, Greenberg, pastors at Christ United, and St. Louis aldermen Annie Rice and Megan Green applied to the St. Louis office for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security discretion that would allow Garcia to take steps toward legal citizenship. But the request was denied by ICE’s regional office, which said Garcia “exhausted his due process.”

It was at least the second time such a request was denied; Garcia previously was granted two extensions before 2017; the denials since reflect a tougher stance on immigration under Trump, John said.

“This family keeps asking for a day in court,” she said. “Let’s honor their right to have this case heard and a decision based on the merits because then it would be very clear, as it has to the community, that he has a right to stay.”

John said officials won’t even consider the Garcias’ request on the merits, and are simply denying them a chance to submit an application for a temporary stay.

“I think most people, when they hear this family’s story, it’s very clear that this seems to be at odds with what immigration law purports to build in this country,” John said. “We say we honor and value families, that we honor and value investments in this country, being respected and known and integral in small communities.”

Turner ended her sermon Sunday by telling listeners that though they are weary of fighting immigration authorities, they are not weary of caring for the Garcia family and standing together against injustice.

“Let us as a church keep on answering the door,” she said, “keep on answering that phone and keep on welcoming Christ to come in.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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