SALT LAKE CITY â€” After over three years living in a Salt Lake City church to avoid being deported, Honduran immigrant Vicky Chavez stepped outside Thursday with tears in her eyes as church congregants and friends cheered, celebrating her newfound freedom.
Chavez and her two young daughters took sanctuary in First Unitarian Church in January 2018 after she said she fled an abusive boyfriend in Honduras and sought asylum in the United States but was denied.
Chavez entered the United States illegally in June 2014 and was ordered deported by a federal immigration judge in December 2016. After exhausting her appeals in January 2018, Chavez had a plane ticket home to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She instead accepted an offer of sanctuary from the church.
Chavez said she received a notice from Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday that she had been granted a so-called a stay of removal, which limits her risk of being deported for a year.
"Vicky's life is no longer on hold," Rev. Tom Goldsmith, the church’s minister, told reporters. "She leaves this church with a full grasp of the English language, a couple of hundred friends and the confidence to pursue her dreams."
Chavez thanked her community in the church for helping keep her and her daughters safe over the past 1,168 days and said she plans to remain in Utah.
"I have no words to thank them for giving me a safe home for over three years," Chavez said. "Today I can say that I’m full of love and happy to have arrived here.”
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson had tears in her eyes as she congratulated Chavez and called on citizens and elected leaders to have "more compassion" for members of their communities.
Chavez and her daughters were the first known immigrants to take sanctuary in Utah, according to local immigration advocates and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She and her daughters slept in a converted Sunday school room and spent most of their time in another room with a TV, an easel and games.
Skylar Anderson, Chavez’s attorney, said he was overjoyed for his client and her family but urged elected officials in Congress to prioritize changes for the nation’s immigration system and to make the process easier for those seeking asylum.
"There are millions of Vickys in this country â€” I’ve represented many of them,” Anderson said. “There aren’t enough churches to give sanctuary to all the Vickys of this country. This country needs to be that sanctuary."
Alethea Smock, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had no comment Thursday about Chavez' case.
In his first weeks in office, President Joe Biden signed several executive orders on immigration issues that undo his predecessor's policies, though several Republican members of Congress are pushing legal challenges.
Others who have emerged from sanctuary since Biden took office include Jose Chicas, a 55-year-old El Salvador native, who left a church-owned house in Durham, North Carolina, on Jan. 22.
Alex Garcia, a father of five from Honduras, left a Mapplewood, Missouri church in February. Edith Espinal, a native of Mexico, left an Ohio church after more than three years.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Sophia Eppolito, The Associated Press