“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” said Pastor Rebecca Turner, echoing Ella’s Song by Sweet Honey in the Rock. It was another beautiful Sunday morning at Christ Church in Maplewood, Missouri. But for Alex García, this wasn’t just any Sunday. For him, it was the 1,094th day of living in sanctuary at Christ Church.
Three years ago, Alex took sanctuary in Christ Church becoming one of 40+ immigrants living in sanctuary across the United States. He has been battling a threat of deportation by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2015. He refuses to be separated from his family and is determined to stay at home in Missouri, where he belongs.
In 2000, René Alexander García Maldonado, or Alex, as he is known by friends, left his birth country of Honduras at 19 years old in order to flee violence and extreme poverty. That same year, after a challenging road North, he was captured and deported to Honduras. A few years later, he re-entered the U.S., settling in Poplar Bluff, Missouri with the help of local residents. There, he worked as a construction worker, educated himself in English, mowed the lawns of elderly folks for free and won the respect and friendship of many in town. In 2007, he met Carly and they married in 2010. The couple raises five children together.
After 11 years of building a life and family in the U.S. and living as a responsible member of society, everything changed in 2015 when Alex was detained by ICE. His sister had recently moved to the U.S. to keep her son safe from gang recruitment in Honduras and Alex accompanied her to request asylum status at an immigration facility in Kansas City. While accompanying her, Alex was approached by ICE agents who, upon realizing his illegal status, detained him in order to deport him again.
Alex’s attorney was able to get a stay of removal, a temporary permit to avoid deportation that needed to be renewed annually. But after the Trump administration adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy in 2017 for immigrants who have committed crimes, Alex’s plea to renew his stay of removal was denied.
Threatened with imminent deportation and permanent separation from his family, his options were scarce. Just two years earlier, his brother-in-law had been murdered in his home village, and his 4-year-old nephew was also shot. Moving back to Honduras was not an option. It was then he decided: he would move to a church.
For some time, ICE has respected a policy of not making arrests in places of worship. The congregation of Christ Church, United Church of Christ, in Maplewood received Alex with open arms. While the community made adaptations to their church building so Alex could live there, he was supported by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Illinois, an order of Catholic sisters. When the construction was completed, Alex moved to Christ Church and has not been able to leave the grounds ever since.
Since September 2017, Alex, his family, and supporters have been fighting for a permanent solution. They received immense support from people of all races and ideologies in Poplar Bluff and throughout Missouri. Hundreds of people have signed petitions, written letters and attended vigils in his support. U.S. Representative Wm. Lacy Clay, Jr. (D-St Louis) introduced a private bill in Congress last year and St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice, Alderwoman Megan Ellia Green, and Maplewood’s Mayor Barry Greenberg have all voiced support for his case.
But ICE has remained immovable.
The experience has been very trying for Alex’s family. Carly Garcia has been relentless in the defense of her husband. She now works as the operations manager of the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA), an organization that has had a leading role in supporting Alex.
The García children have also had their share of pain and struggle. Carly’s son Caleb wrote to his congressman, “I want [my dad] to stay because he is my favorite dad in the whole wide world. I am 11 years old. He is the only person I trust.”
Alex’s oldest son has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and relies heavily on his relationship with his father for his support and wellbeing.
IFCLA and others have attempted to submit an application to delay Alex’s deportation several times, but have faced obstacles at every turn. In the meantime, the community of Christ Church continues to be a source of hope for Alex and his family. When addressing her parishioners this past Sunday, Pastor Rebecca Turner said, “We will not grow weary of loving Alex and Carly and her kids…We will not grow weary of being on the right side of history.”
In the eyes of ICE, since Alex continues to avoid deportation, he is a fugitive. Although he is married to Carly, a U.S. citizen, he doesn’t qualify for green card status because of his deportation in 2000.
Alex’s case is not unique. In 2013, 83 percent of the people deported from the US were not given a hearing before a judge. The fate of families like the Garcías will not change, unless immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are seen as people that need compassion.
Multiple organizations are participating in a virtual Week of Action until September 25. Yesterday, there was a morning service offered by Christ Church and an evening vigil. Other events include social media support, a sneak preview of a documentary about Alex’s story, discussions on present and future strategies, among other things.
More information on the Week of Action can be found here.
Let us not forget Jesus’s words in the Gospel of Matthew, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Or, in the words of Christ Church’s Pastor Rebecca Turner, “Let us, church, keep on answering the door, keep on answering that phone, and keep on welcoming Christ to come in.”