Jumping Rocks/UIG via Getty Images(PHILADELPHIA)- Nearly 11 months after taking sanctuary at a Philadelphia church to avoid being deported from the U.S., Javier Flores Garcia walked outside for the first time today as a free man.
"The first thing I want to do today is to go back home and go for a walk with my children around the neighborhood and say hi to all of my neighbors," Garcia, 40, told ABC News. "Today, I can finally go back to my kids."
Shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday, Garcia left Arch Street United Methodist Church in downtown Philadelphia accompanied by his wife, Alma Lopez, his three children, Adamaris, Javier, and Yael, the church's pastor and immigrant rights activists. It was the first time in 332 days that Garcia had been able to leave the church.
"We are celebrating a huge victory and that victory is that after so long, I am finally able to go back to my family and my kids," Garcia said. "The hardest thing for me was all the suffering my kids had to go through, all the psychological trauma, but we knew that I had a strong case and we needed to keep on fighting to be with them."
Garcia was able to leave after being granted a waiver that allows his visa case to move forward, according to his attorney Brennan Gian-Grasso. Garcia has been approved for one of only about 10,000 U visas available each year. These visas are reserved for immigrants who are victims of crimes and agree to help law enforcement solve them.
"The U visa does permit him to remain in the country for three to four years, after which he can apply for residency," Gian-Grasso said, adding that Garcia has been approved and is now "waiting in the queue" for the visa.
Garcia entered the sanctuary on Nov. 13, 2016, to avoid being deported back to Mexico after living in the U.S. for nearly 20 years. Garcia's U visa petition is based on a March 18, 2004, incident in which he and his brother were attacked and stabbed with box cutters in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, by two other undocumented men. They helped police solve the crime.
According to an affidavit of probable cause filed by the detectives in the case, the brothers were transported to the hospital after “suffering stab wounds and numerous lacerations” from “grayish colored box cutters.” The two men who attacked them were charged with aggravated assault. Gian-Grasso told ABC News in May that thanks to Garcia's "cooperation from the very get-go and his ability to identify the people who hurt him, they ended up accepting plea deals to aggravated assault, served jail time and were ultimately deported."
But according to Gian-Grasso, no U visa petition was filed on his behalf until more than 10 years after the attack, when he was already in the Pike County Detention Center, more than 130 miles from his family in Philadelphia, awaiting deportation.
Garcia’s detention started in May 2015, when ICE agents were waiting for him as he left for work. He said his older son and daughter watched as ICE agents handcuffed him at the family’s home. He was sent to a detention center more than 130 miles from his family in Philadelphia. During the time he was detained, his family suffered: his daughter attempted suicide and his children once ran away from home to try to get to the detention center, he said.
With just one day before his parole was set to expire on Nov. 14, 2016, Garcia entered sanctuary at Arch Street United Methodist Church, where he had not previously been a member. The logistics of his sanctuary were the product of weeks of planning between the Garcia family, immigrant rights group Juntos and the church's pastor, the Rev. Robin Hynicka. Garcia soon became a big part of the church community, serving meals, painting and helping out, Hynicka said.
"Just the human being he is touched our souls deeply because of his courage, his strength and the love of his children," Hynicka said today. "I'm so happy that he's leaving but I am going to miss him terribly."
Garcia was the first person to take sanctuary in the church, he said, and being unable to even set foot outside is not easy.
"To be able to withstand the trauma and the difficulty and the loneliness and the confinement — really, the confinement — of sanctuary, you have to have a large support community," Hynicka said.
After supporting Garcia, the church would consider doing it again, Hynicka said. Arch Street United Methodist is a member of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
"The room where Javier stayed will remain open and ready when that happens," he added.
Now that he is no longer facing deportation, Garcia said he intends to return to "everyday life" and his work as an arborist.
"I want to go back to work and keep supporting and providing for my family," Garcia said.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official told ABC News today that "ICE cannot comment on Mr. Flores Garcia’s case."
Olivia Vasquez, a community organizer with Juntos, said she did not see any ICE presence outside the church when Garcia exited this morning. During his time in sanctuary, Garcia said his family worried that ICE could choose to enter the church and deport him. His GPS ankle bracelet shared his location with ICE, which has a field office nearby.
But ICE said its "sensitive locations policy" remains in effect, which limits enforcement actions at places of worship.
"The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sensitive locations policy, which remains in effect, provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations should generally be avoided, and require either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action. The Department of Homeland Security is committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation," ICE said today in a statement.
Garcia described his time living in the church as a "life-changing experience" and said he wants to start his time living at home again by "thanking everyone who supported me."
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