Honduran woman exits Utah church after 3 years in sanctuary

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Vicky Chavez poses for a photograph at the First Unitarian Church Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Chavez, a Honduran woman in the U.S. illegally who received sanctuary in a Salt Lake City church with her two young daughters for more than three years is now free to leave without risk of deportation. Chavez stepped outside First Unitarian Church for the first time in 1,168 days on Thursday as church congregants cheered. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY – 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.