O'FALLON, Mo. — U.S. Rep. Cori Bush introduced legislation Monday to grant permanent residency to Alex Garcia, a Honduran immigrant who has spent more than three years inside a Missouri church to avoid deportation.
Bush, a freshman Democrat from St. Louis, announced a private bill that would allow the married father of five to emerge from his long stay at the Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood, a St. Louis suburb. The church gave him refuge starting in 2017 as the federal government sough to deport him. Garcia entered the U.S. illegally in 2004.
Garcia said during a news conference on Zoom that he is hopeful the bill will be a "pathway for freedom."
"I miss spending time with my family outside of the church walls," Garcia said. "It has been hard for me watching my babies grow and learn without me."
Garcia is among dozens of people who took sanctuary during President Donald Trump's administration to avoid deportation. Many have said they are hopeful they can obtain citizenship under President Joe Biden.
In his first weeks as president, Biden has signed several executive orders on immigration issues that undo his predecessor's policies, though several Republican members of Congress are pushing legal challenges to block those orders.
Garcia fled extreme poverty and violence in Honduras, his advocates said in an interview last month. He hopped a train that he thought was headed for Houston, but instead ended up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, 17 years ago.
He landed a job and met his wife, Carly, a U.S. citizen, and for more than a decade they lived quietly with their blended family in the small Missouri town.
In 2015, Garcia accompanied his sister to an immigration office for a check-in. Officials there realized Garcia was in the country illegally. He received two one-year reprieves during Barack Obama's administration.
But after Trump took office in 2017, a third request for a reprieve was denied. Garcia seemed destined for deportation until the Maplewood church took him in.
Pastor Becky Turner said Garcia quickly emerged as a valued part of the church family.
"I have watched as he set up beds for the unhoused on cold winter nights," Turner said. "I have watched as he would take care of our church members who needed something fixed or built or found. Alex the guest quickly became Alex the host."
"The country needs more people like Alex," Turner said.
A private bill provides benefits to specific individuals and are often sought when administrative and legal remedies are exhausted. Immigration is a common issue. Only four private bills have been signed into law since 2007, Bush said.
"This will not be an easy fight, but that's never stopped us before and it won't stop us today," Bush said. "We stand with Alex and we will not rest until he is free and protected from the most inhumane element of our country's immigration system."
Bush's predecessor in Missouri's 1st District, William Lacy Clay, also sought passage of a private bill on behalf of Garcia, but it failed to pass.
Still, Garcia's wife said the new private bill offers hope.
"We've been living in this cycle of trauma for the last 3 1/2 years and it has felt unbearable," Carly Garcia said.