When immigration authorities ordered Alex Garcia to turn himself in for deportation last year, his wife Carly decided to fight to keep her family together.
Instead of driving to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, where Alex would be jailed then sent back to his native Honduras, the couple drove 150 miles to a church in Maplewood.
It’s now been one year since Alex took sanctuary at Christ Church, United Church of Christ.
To mark the anniversary, Carly Garcia traveled this week to Washington D.C. to meet with representatives from the offices of Senators Claire McCaskill, Roy Blunt and Dick Durbin and plead for their help in reuniting her family. She also visited the offices of U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay, D-University City, and Jason Smith, R-Salem, who represents her southeast Missouri district.
“I wasnt expecting to come home with his citizenship in my hand,” Garcia said. “However, I was expecting to be heard. And they heard me.”
As she shared her family’s story with legislative staffers, Garcia showed photos of milestones her husband missed – birthday parties, his son’s first football game and his daughter’s first bike ride.
“I wanted to make it real for them,” she said. “I wanted them to see what it’s like to tear a family apart.”
Organizing a 'week of action'
The trip was part of a week of action to continue to raise public support for the Garcia family. Carly Garcia traveled with Sara John, of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, and Nicole Cortés, of the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project.
Last year, the women launched a campaign called “Alex Belongs Here.” It encourages supporters to reach out to elected officials and to the director of ICE’s Chicago field office, who has the power to grant Alex a stay of removal.
Immigration agents previously granted Garcia year-long stays of removal so he could live with and support his wife and their five children. But last year, after President Donald Trump took office and issued new immigration policies, Garcia’s request was denied.
Now, Garcia spends most of his time helping food truck operators in the church’s kitchen and volunteering at a weekly food pantry. ICE policies limit enforcement in places of worship so living at the church offers Garcia some protection as advocates and lawyers work on his case.
He’s one of more than 30 people publicly taking sanctuary across the country.
Living in sanctuary is not easy, he said. “But it gives us hope that we can be with our families and lets us fight for our right to be with our families,” he added. “Everybody has that right.”
Nearly every weekend, Carly and the couple’s five children make the two-and-a-half hour trip to Christ Church. Instead of going fishing at the lake this summer, their children spent time watching movies and playing video games with Alex in his makeshift apartment.
Carly said the children have had a hard time understanding why their government won’t allow their father to come back home.
“They’re still trying to pinpoint – why?” she said. “As a mom, I don’t even know how to describe to my children why.”
Alex Garcia, 37, fled violence in Honduras as a teenager nearly two decades ago. A few years later, he hopped on a train headed toward Houston, Texas and ended up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where he met and married Carly and worked in construction.
Although Carly was born and raised in the United States, there’s no clear path to citizenship for her husband of 12 years. Because he was apprehended and deported when he first crossed the U.S. southern border, years before making it to Missouri, he cannot easily apply for permanent residency. To do so, he’d have to leave the country for at least 10 years.
In May, the Garcias met with Rep. Clay, who later sent a letter asking immigration officials to grant Alex a stay of removal.
“Alex is a family man, is not a danger to the community, and should be reunited with his U.S. citizen wife and his U.S. citizen children,” the letter said.
Carly Garcia met with Clay again this week while she was in Washington. She said Clay promised her he would make a phone call and send a second letter.
Sara John, who is coordinating sanctuary efforts in the St. Louis region, said she hopes the meetings in Washington D.C. will lead to more action from elected officials.
“As soon as Carly started talking, everything else stopped,” John said, adding that Garcia was not once interrupted or rushed. “And so for me, that demonstrates a depth of understanding and some agreement or acceptance of shared values – and recognition of injustice.”
The week of action will continue Friday with prayer and an invitation for supporters to fast in honor of the Garcia family. It concludes Sunday with a sermon and fellowship brunch at Christ Church in Maplewood.
Follow Carolina on Twitter: @CarolinaHidalgo