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After Years Of Living Inside A Church, A Honduran Mother Is Granted Freedom

 A crowd chanted “Vicky es libre,” as Vicky Chavez walked down the steps of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City after living more than three years in sanctuary. (Photo By Kelsie Moore)
A crowd chanted “Vicky es libre,” as Vicky Chavez walked down the steps of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City after living more than three years in sanctuary. (Photo By Kelsie Moore)

After more than three years, Vicky Chavez took her first steps of freedom outside the church that gave her sanctuary.

Chavez is an undocumented immigrant who fled political unrest and an abusive relationship in Honduras back in 2014. Her initial request for asylum was denied in January 2018.

She was waiting at the Salt Lake City International airport for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to call her about her request. When her lawyer told her it was denied, she and her two daughters sought protection inside First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City to avoid deportation.

Tuesday, Chavez learned ICE had granted her a stay of removal. Chavez said she was preparing for her weekly meeting with the National Sanctuary Collective when her attorney called with the news. She thought he was joking.

“I was crying because I was so happy and I [couldn’t] believe it. And then the lawyer [said], ‘Yes Vicky, you can go outside and walk for four streets and then come back and finish reading that email because you are free right now,” Chavez said.

She expressed her gratitude to the community, church leaders and activists who have supported her and her family.

Chavez and her two girls can stay in the U.S for one year, at which time she will have to apply for a renewal. She said she never lost hope even as the years went by.

“Today, we celebrate freedom, but the struggle continues,” Chavez said.

Unidad Inmigrante, sat in the pews cheering “Vicky es libre.” The grassroots immigration advocacy group was part of the initial effort to bring the Chavez family to First Unitarian Church.

Skyler Anderson is Chavez's attorney. He said while this is a win for the family, Congress needs to find a permanent solution for the immigration system.

“It's a great moment right now, but there are millions of Vicky’s in this country. There aren't enough churches to give sanctuary to all the Vicky’s of this country. This country needs to be that sanctuary,” Anderson said.

Joan Gregory is the social justice chair of First Unitarian Church. She said the stay of removal was a longtime coming, but the struggle is not over for Chavez and her family. Now the church will try to help her gain permanent resident status and eventually citizenship.

Church leaders stressed the need to change the existing immigration system and called on local politicians and elected officials to take action. Chavez is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It charges that the government levied excessive and retaliatory fines against sanctuary leaders.

Chavez said she will continue to advocate for other families like hers.

Following the press conference, Chavez rang the church bells to celebrate her freedom. She plans on living with her family in Salt Lake City, but first, she is going to take her daughters to Disneyland.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.