After three years, Vicky Chavez can safely leave her sanctuary in a Salt Lake City church

For more than three years, Vicky Chavez had not set foot outside the walls of a church in Salt Lake City, fearing that she would be expelled as soon as she found herself on the other side of the stained glass windows.

So when she ventured past them for the first time on Thursday, she couldn’t help but laugh. She could finally leave safely. No immigration officer was waiting to detain her.

But after dreaming for so long of feeling the sun on her face again, she was greeted by rain.

“I guess that’s a blessing too,” she said, looking up at the sky with a smile and letting the gentle drops touch her skin.

The bell tower that had become the home of Chavez and her two little girls towered behind her as her friends and family greeted the Honduran woman under their umbrellas on the sidewalk below. She took a minute to soak it in – the green grass she had missed touching, the trees she had grown accustomed to seeing from afar – taking a deep breath before repeating “thank you” and ” muchas gracias”.

The announcement that Chavez was now free to leave the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church came in the morning, with the chapel pews filled with supporters and television cameras to document his freedom. Chavez was granted a reprieve on her immigration case, which means she is no longer considered a priority for deportation from the United States and no longer needs to hide inside.

“I can officially leave the room,” she said to thunderous cheers and applause. “I’m free today.”

The faithful chanted: “Vicky is free, Vicky is free! Chavez wiped away her tears in front of the pulpit filled with flowers to congratulate her on her victory.

Her attorney said the first time he told Chavez she could leave, she didn’t believe him. He had sent her an e-mail with the subject “GOOD NEWS”, which Chavez thought was a joke. His fourth and final request for a reprieve had just been denied last month. That it was granted now was a surprise.

“I sent her a copy of the notice so she could read it with her own eyes and stop pinching herself,” immigration attorney Skyler Anderson said. “I told him to go running in the streets and dance.”

Instead, Chavez first ran through the halls of the church to tell his daughters. His eldest, Yaretzi, who is 9 years old, shouted.

“Now we can go to Disneyland,” the girl said.

Chavez remembers laughing as he swung 3-year-old Bella in his arms and they celebrated together. The Reverend Tom Goldsmith said Thursday the upcoming collection at the church will help make the trip that Yaretzi has long dreamed of a reality for the family.

“We’re ready for that,” Chavez said gratefully, though she noted they would start by going to see her parents in West Valley City. She, Yaretzi and Bella will be living with them for the time being.

Chavez’s two daughters have grown up in church halls for the past three years, learning to read and ride bikes, celebrating birthdays and watching lots of Disney movies to fill the time. They peeked in from the chapel lobby during Thursday’s press conference.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Chavez said, looking at them and his mother and sister who were standing there as well. “It wasn’t just my fight. It was also for my daughters.

1,168 days

His little family arrived at the church on January 30, 2018, after Chavez bought three plane tickets to Honduras, but changed their minds before the final boarding call. The First Unitarian Congregation took her and her daughters into the building at 569 S. 1300 East, converting a second-floor Sunday School classroom into a small apartment.

Room 205 – marked “residencia privada” on the outside – became theirs for 1,168 days.

“Vicky mattered, and so did the girls,” said Joan Gregory, the church’s sanctuary director. “But we also count the things we have learned. We have gained so much knowing Vicky Chavez, a strong woman and a strong mother.

Chavez, now 33, said she spent many nights crying in the bedroom when her daughters fell asleep. She wanted them to be able to play on a playground outside. Instead, they were stuck in a comfortable prison. She hadn’t expected to have to stay so long in a shrine.

She fled to the United States in June 2014 with Yaretzi in her arms – never shooting him during the trip, Gregory told the faithful. Chavez says she was running from a violent and abusive boyfriend who repeatedly threatened to kill her.

She applied for asylum to live in Utah, where much of her family had already immigrated. His application was refused. She called. A federal judge then ordered her deportation from the country while she was in the hospital, giving birth to Bella. The youngest daughter was 6 months old when they first came to First Unitarian.

“I want to thank them for opening the doors of this church to my family,” Chavez said. “They are like my family now. I have no words for them who gave me a safe home for three years. I came here with an empty and broken heart. Now I am full of love and happy.

Chavez alternated between Spanish and English, which she learned in church, during her remarks, mentioning “la iglesia”, “mi familia” and how she is “muy, muy contenta”.

She also read a long list of thanks for all members of the faith community and several local immigrant organizations who supported her. For three years, members and volunteers stood guard at the front of the building on a 24-hour shift, in case immigration officers tried to enter.

“Now you can all take a vacation,” Chavez said with a laugh.

Pushing for immigration reform

Thursday’s announcement was as much a celebration as it was a commitment to continue their work.

The stay in his case, which will allow Chavez to remain in the United States for at least a year while lawyers continue to argue for permanent residency, was granted by President Joe Biden’s administration.

Chavez previously said in February that she was hopeful what her election might mean for her case.

“When President Biden swore with his hand on the Bible, I said, ‘Thank God, and the people who vote, we have a new president,'” she wrote in an email to the Salt. Lake Tribune.

That’s when she allowed herself to hope and started telling Yaretzi that they might be going to Disneyland soon after all. On Thursday, Chavez placed a small doll of Biden next to the church organ before he began speaking. She had crocheted the figurine – a hobby she had pursued while at church.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez laughs at cheers from friends and family, before leaving the First Unitarian Church for the first time in three years, April 15, 2021. In January 2018, Chavez sought refuge at church, living in a converted Sunday school classroom for more than three years with her two daughters. Chavez and his two daughters were granted a reprieve and are no longer considered a deportation priority by the United States. To the right is a doll of President Joe Biden that Chavez crocheted herself.

But his fight is not over.

Another administration could reverse things — as former President Donald Trump did before, making immigration enforcement much more difficult and removing protections for immigrants who had experienced domestic abuse. His administration also charged Chavez with a fine of nearly half a million dollars for not leaving.

“There are millions of Vickis in this country. There are not enough churches,” said Anderson, his lawyer. “This country must be a sanctuary.”

The new president has promised to enact immigration reform, and so far he has held firm. Chavez is at least the sixth woman living in a sanctuary to receive a stay this year under Biden.

A Mexican mother was released from her church in Philadelphia last month. Two immigrant women seeking refuge in Ohio were both granted residency in February. A Russian woman was able to leave her church in Massachusetts. And a Honduran refugee woman in Virginia was also told it was safe to walk out.

Now that Chavez is free, there are about 20 cases left like his. When it first arrived in 2018, there were 40. There are currently no similar cases in Utah.

Anderson said he fears more whiplash from future presidents. He called on Congress to create a permanent solution instead of “band-aids on broken legs.”

Judges, he said, often tell him they know an immigrant will face persecution and possibly death if returned to their home country. But Anderson noted they often did anyway, saying, “but it’s the law.”

“It is absolutely clear that our immigration system is broken,” he added. “And Vicky’s case shows it.”

The mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County were both in attendance, as was state Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, who is also loyal to First Unitarian. They all pushed for immigration reform too. And some members of the faith distributed flyers urging the community to “ACT WITH US”.

Governor Spencer Cox told reporters he was happy to hear of Chavez’s release, noting that Utah’s history was a haven for Latter-day Saints fleeing religious persecution.

“We are a state that has always welcomed refugees here,” he said. “I think it’s great that she has the opportunity to stay here and we look forward to helping those in need when they are assigned to our state.”

A goodbye and a promise

After Chavez’s announcement, Reverend Goldsmith lit the chalice outside the chapel. The pastor lights the flame every Sunday and repeats the same prayer.

Reflecting on the words it contained, he said it was worth repeating on Thursday. The flame is “a symbol of warmth and freedom”, he prayed. It is a “symbol of light and knowledge”.

The church will continue to burn the candle and say those hopes, he said. And he will also maintain his sanctuary program if others need a safe place to stay.

And even if she leaves now, Chavez has promised that she will return every Sunday for services. This place has become his home. She sings in the church choir. She knows all the faithful. And, most importantly, she said she feels loved and protected. This, she says, is what faith should be.

“Thank you all,” she said. “And I love you with all my heart.” She repeated in Spanish “mi corazón”.

A woman shouted back, “You will one day be a citizen of this country.”

“And we’ll help you get there,” said another, wearing a shirt that read, “Swap racists for refugees.”

A third added: “You belong to us.”

Chavez bowed his head during the final blessing and joined his palms in prayer. The pastor said, “Lord, we ask you to give us the strength to protect those who are marginalized.

She then walked towards a waiting car as the church bells rang to announce her freedom. She didn’t know where she was going yet. Chavez only knew that she left these walls after three years and that it was like a blessing.

Rain or shine.

About Wesley V. Finley

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