MAPLEWOOD — U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, on Monday introduced legislation to grant permanent lawful residency to Alex Garcia, a Honduran immigrant and father living in sanctuary in a Maplewood church.
“We stand with Alex and we will not rest until he is free and protected from the most inhumane elements of our country’s immigration system,” Bush said. “We reiterate loudly and clearly that Alex belongs here.”
Garcia, a married father of five, has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, but spent the last 3½ years apart from his family in Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood to avoid immediate deportation by federal officials.
After fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras in 2004, Garcia found employment as a construction worker in Poplar Bluff and married a U.S. citizen and had kids. But in 2015, he caught the attention of immigration officials when he accompanied his sister to an immigration check-in appointment at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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 and was immediately deported.
With the help of immigration attorneys, Garcia was twice granted a one-year reprieve to stay in the country. But in 2017, Garcia’s third request for a reprieve was denied.
Rather than turn himself in, Garcia sought refuge in Maplewood. He is one of about 50 other undocumented immigrants, who have no criminal record and are married to U.S. citizens, living in sanctuary in the United States urging President Joe Biden’s administration to grant them permanent protection while they pursue citizenship.
“It has been very hard for me watching my babies grow and they are without me being by their side,” Garcia said Monday, thanking Bush for her legislation. “It means more than words can explain about how I feel about the promise she has made to me, my family and all other families living the same injustice as we are.”
Bush said that her bill would grant Garcia protection before it’s signed into law — if it can pass the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. The committee in 2019 stalled a similar bill to protect Garcia by Bush’s predecessor, former U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay.
Only four such “private bills” — so named because they apply to only one person — have become law in the last 14 years, Bush said. Her staff is in talks with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, and Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-California, to gain support for the legislation, she said.
“The road ahead will not be easy … but that will not discourage us,” Bush said.
While Bush’s bill only applies to Garcia’s case, it would help “pave the way for broader reforms that decriminalize immigrants and all communities of color,” said Sara John, director of the St. Louis Interfaith Committee on Latin America.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, Garcia and others in sanctuary weren’t considered a priority for deportation because they had no criminal records and were working people with husbands, wives and children who are U.S. citizens. They were allowed to stay provided they regularly checked in with immigration officials.
President Donald Trump’s administration reversed that policy, making a concentrated effort to deport hundreds of undocumented immigrants, which led to Immigrations Customs and Enforcement officials repeatedly denying appeals by Garcia and his supporters.
While Biden in January announced plans to reverse hardline deportation policies under Trump, those protections have not been made permanent amid legal challenges by Republican lawmakers to block Biden’s executive orders.
Bush on Monday said the U.S. immigration policies are in need of extensive reform.
“What is happening to Alex is unacceptable and it is the manifestation of a system that criminalizes the experiences of black and brown immigrants, that criminalizes the experience of human migration,” Bush said.
The Rev. Becky Turner, pastor at Christ Church United Church of Christ, said Garcia has become a beloved member of the church and his family is a part of the Maplewood community, but added that their separation was inhumane.
“We provided them the only way that we knew to prevent them from being torn apart, but living in a church should have been a very short-term solution,” she said. “No family should go through what they have been through.
Garcia’s wife, Carly, said her family has been traumatized since receiving the order in 2017 to deport Garcia within two weeks.
“We’ve been living in this cycle of trauma for the last 3½ years and it has felt unbearable,” she said. “Seeing my babies cry for their father and seeing my husband unable to meet their needs because he can’t leave the church — no mother should have to endure that. We just want the freedom to live our lives as a whole family.”
Nassim Benchaabane •
@NassimBnchabane on Twitter