Today, Pastor José Chicas — an undocumented immigrant who has been in sanctuary in Durham, N.C., since June 27, 2017 — is returning home. His departure from sanctuary comes as a result of President Joe Biden’s 100-day moratorium on some deportations.
In 2017, Chicas was told by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he had to return to his native El Salvador. At that time, he chose to take sanctuary at Durham's Saint John’s Missionary Baptist Church, away from his wife and four children. It is ICE policy not to arrest people on church property. If, however, he stepped off of church property, he ran the risk of arrest and deportation.
At a news conference today, Sandra Marquina, Chicas’ wife, said that “it’s a really great feeling” to know that her husband can finally come home.
“My son Ezequiel was 10 years old [when my husband went into sanctuary],” Marquina shared. “He cried and told me, ‘I really miss my father.’ He asked me one day when our family will be a normal family again. I said, ‘Ezequiel, I’m sorry. I don’t have the answer.’”
Speaking during his confinement in October 2020, Chicas told a local paper, “This is jail.”
According to a statement on pastorjosechicas.org, a website run by Chicas’ friends, family, and supporters, “Pastor Chicas fled El Salvador during the violent civil war of the 1980s and came to the US seeking asylum. Because of poor legal advice, he skipped his hearing and ended up with a deportation order that has followed him throughout his time in the U.S.''
He eventually settled in Raleigh and became the pastor of Iglesia Evangélica Jesús el Pan de Vida. He traveled regularly to the Charlotte ICE field office for check-ins and was given a social security number, work permit, and driver's license; he also paid taxes.
At a regular check-in in spring 2017, Chicas was informed that he had one month to buy a one-way plane ticket to El Salvador and never come back. According to a statement on pastorchicas.org, Chicas believes the decision was tied to convictions for impaired driving and domestic violence decades ago.
“Pastor Chicas hypothesizes that it was this record, part of the full and difficult life that transformed him into the man he is today, that caused his name to come up for deportation once the new political regime came into power in 2017,” said the statement.
According to Religion News Service, Chicas is one of “approximately 38 people who have publicly taken sanctuary in religious congregations across the country to avoid deportation.” At one point, Chicas was one of six people in sanctuary in North Carolina, the most of any state.
Isaac Villegas, who is pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship and has helped support Chicas and others in sanctuary in North Carolina, said that living in fear for the safety of those living in sanctuary “has been exhausting.”
“I have lived with a low-level anxiety and panic as the background noise to my life as we sustain and care for these people who have been in sanctuary in our churches,” Villegas told Sojourners. “It is an unbelievable relief to be able to bear witness to their long months and years of perseverance. To see José walk away free, I’m so excited and thrilled that he can build his life again.”
Now, after more than 1,300 days, Chicas told the crowd of reporters and supporters waiting outside of the sanctuary, “God gave the victory today.”
For his part, Chicas son Ezequiel is now looking forward to the future.
“I should wake up and get to know that my dad’s in the same house as me, that I don’t have to visit him far away,” Ezequiel said. “Knowing that my dad wasn’t going to be there for my fifth grade or eighth grade graduation, but hopefully he can be there to see me graduate from high school. It just brings me joy to know that this day has come. It’s a really great feeling.”