‘I am free today’: After three years, Vicky Chavez can safely leave her sanctuary at a Salt Lake City church

The Honduran mother was granted a stay in her immigration case.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez leaves the First Unitarian Church for the first time in more than three years on April 15, 2021. In January 2018, Chavez sought sanctuary at the church, living in a converted Sunday school classroom for more than three years with her two daughters.

For more than three years, Vicky Chavez hadn’t stepped foot outside the walls of a Salt Lake City church, fearing she would face deportation as soon as she was on the other side of the stained glass doors.

So when she ventured past them for the first time Thursday, she couldn’t help but laugh. She was finally safe to leave. There were no immigration officials waiting to detain her.

But after dreaming for so long to feel the sun on her face again, she was greeted by rain.

“I guess it’s a blessing, too,” she said, looking up at the sky with a smile and letting the soft drops hit her skin.

The steeple that had come to be home for Chavez and her two little girls towered behind her as friends and family welcomed the Honduran woman under their umbrellas on the sidewalk below. She took a minute to soak it in — the green grass she had missed touching, the trees that she got used to seeing from afar — taking a deep breath before repeating “thank you” and “muchas gracias.”

The announcement that Chavez was now free to leave sanctuary at the First Unitarian Church came in the morning, with the pews of the chapel filled with supporters and TV cameras there to document her freedom. Chavez has been granted a stay in her immigration case, meaning she’s no longer considered a priority for removal from the United States and no longer needs to hide inside.

“I can officially leave the room,” she said to a roar of cheers and claps. “I am free today.”

Congregants chanted: “Vicky es libre, Vicky es libre!” Chavez wiped away tears at the pulpit stacked high with flowers to congratulate her on the victory.

Her attorney said when he first told Chavez that she could leave, she didn’t believe him. He had sent her an email with the subject line “GREAT NEWS,” which Chavez thought was a joke. Her fourth and latest request for a stay had just recently been denied last month. That it would be granted now was a surprise.

“I sent her a copy of the notice so she could read it with her own eyes and stop pinching herself,” said immigration lawyer Skyler Anderson. “I told her to go run out into the streets and dance.”

Chavez instead first ran through the hallways of the church to tell her daughters. Her oldest, Yaretzi, who’s 9 years old, screamed.

“Now we can go to Disneyland,” the girl declared.

Chavez recalled laughing as she swung Bella, 3, into her arms and they celebrated together. The Rev. Tom Goldsmith said Thursday that the next collection at the church will go toward making that trip that Yaretzi has long dreamed of a reality for the family.

“We’re ready for that,” Chavez said gratefully, though she noted they’ll start with going to see her parents in West Valley City. She, Yaretzi and Bella will live with them for now.

Chavez’s two girls have grown up in the hallways of the church over the last three years, learning to read and ride bikes, celebrating birthdays and watching a lot of Disney movies to fill the time. They peeked down from the chapel concourse during the news conference Thursday.

“It has not been easy,” Chavez said, looking up at them and her mom and sister who stood there, too. “It wasn’t just my fight. It was also for my daughters.”

1,168 days

Her small family arrived at the church on Jan. 30, 2018, after Chavez had bought three plane tickets for Honduras but changed her mind before the final boarding call. The First Unitarian congregation welcomed her and her daughters to stay in the building at 569 S. 1300 East, converting a Sunday school classroom on the second floor into a tiny apartment.

Room No. 205 — marked “residencia privada” on the outside – became theirs for 1,168 days.

“Vicky has been counting, and so have the girls,” said Joan Gregory, the sanctuary director at the church. “But we’ve been counting, too, the things we have learned. We have gained so much from getting to know Vicky Chavez, a strong woman and a strong mother.”

Chavez, now 33, said she spent a lot of nights crying in the room when her daughters went to sleep. She wanted them to be able to play on a playground outside. Instead, they were stuck in a comfortable prison. She never expected to need to stay in sanctuary for so long.

She fled to the United States in June 2014 with Yaretzi in her arms — never once putting the girl down during the trip, Gregory told the congregants. Chavez says she was escaping a violent and abusive boyfriend who repeatedly threatened to kill her.

She requested asylum to live in Utah, where much of her family had already immigrated. Her application was refused. She appealed. A federal judge then ordered her removal from the country when she was at the hospital, giving birth to Bella. The younger girl was 6 months old when they first got to First Unitarian.

“I want to thank them for opening the doors of this church to my family,” Chavez said. “They are like my family now. I have no words for them having given me a safe home for three years. I arrived here with an empty, broken heart. Now I am full of love and happy.”

Chavez switched between Spanish and English, which she learned at the church, during her remarks, mentioning “la iglesia,” “mi familia” and how she is “muy, muy contenta.”

She also read out a long list of thank-yous for all those in the faith community and several local immigrant organizations, who have supported her. For three years, members and volunteers have stood watch at the front of the building in shifts 24 hours a day, in case any immigration officials tried to come in.

“Now you can all take a vacation,” Chavez said, laughing.

Pushing for immigration reform

The announcement Thursday was as much a celebration as a dedication to continue their work.

The stay in her case, which will allow Chavez to remain in the United States for at least a year while lawyers continue to plead for permanent residency, was granted by President Joe Biden’s administration.

Chavez had previously said in February that she felt hopeful for what his election could mean for her case.

“When President Biden swore with his hand on the Bible, I said, ‘Thank God, and the people who vote, we have a new president,’” she wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune.

It was then she allowed herself to hope and started telling Yaretzi that they may soon be able to go to Disneyland after all. On Thursday, Chavez placed a small doll of Biden next to church organ before she started speaking. She had crocheted the figure — a hobby she took up while staying at the church.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez laughs at the cheers of her friends and family, prior to leaving the First Unitarian Church for the first time in three years, April 15, 2021. In January 2018, Chavez sought sanctuary at the church, living in a converted Sunday school classroom for more than three years with her two daughters. Chavez and her two daughters have been granted a stay and are no longer considered a priority for deportation by the United States. At right is a doll of President Joe Biden that Chavez crocheted herself.

But her fight is not over.

Another administration could reverse things — as former President Donald Trump had done before, making immigration enforcement much tougher and removing protections for immigrants who had experienced domestic violence. His administration also charged Chavez with a nearly half-million-dollar fine for not leaving.

“There are millions of Vickys in this country. There aren’t enough churches,” said Anderson, her attorney. “This country needs to be a sanctuary.”

The new president has promised to enact immigration reform, and so far has held true to that. Chavez is at least the sixth woman living in sanctuary to receive a stay this year under Biden.

A Mexican mother was released from her church in Philadelphia last month. Two immigrant women seeking sanctuary in Ohio both got stays in February. A Russian woman was able to leave her church in Massachusetts. And a Honduran woman sheltering in Virginia was also told she could safely step outside.

Now that Chavez is free, about 20 cases like hers remain. When she first arrived in 2018, there were 40. There are not currently any similar cases in Utah.

Anderson said he fears more whiplash from future presidents. He called on Congress to create a permanent solution instead of “Band-Aids on broken legs.”

Judges, he said, often tell him that they know an immigrant will face persecution and possibly death if they’re sent back to their home countries. But Anderson noted they often do it anyway, saying, “but that’s the law.”

“It is absolutely clear that our immigration system is broken,” he added. “And Vicky’s case shows that.”

The mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County both attended, as did state Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, who is also a congregant at First Unitarian. They all pushed for immigration reform, too. And some members of the faith handed out flyers urging the community to “TAKE ACTION WITH US.”

Gov. Spencer Cox told reporters he was glad to hear about Chavez’s release, noting Utah’s history as a haven for Latter-day Saints fleeing religious persecution.

“We are a state who has always welcomed refugees to come here,” he said. “I think it’s great that she’ll have an opportunity to stay here and we look forward to helping those who are in need when they are assigned to our state.”

A goodbye and a promise

After Chavez’s announcement, Rev. Goldsmith lit the chalice at the front of the chapel. The pastor lights the flame every Sunday and repeats the same prayer.

As he thought about the words in it, he said, it felt worth saying again Thursday. The flame is “a symbol of warmth and freedom,” he prayed. It is a “symbol of light and knowledge.”

The church will continue to burn the candle and say those hopes, he said. And it will also maintain its sanctuary program if others need a safe place to stay.

And even though she’s leaving now, Chavez promised she will return every Sunday for services. This place has become her home. She sings in the church choir. She knows all the congregants. And, most importantly, she said she feels loved and protected. That, she said, is what faith should be.

“Thank you to all,” she said. “And I love you with all my heart.” She repeated in Spanish, “mi corazón.”

One woman shouted back: “You’ll be a citizen of this country someday.”

“And we’ll help you get there,” said another, wearing a shirt that read, “Will trade racists for refugees.”

A third added, “You belong with us.”

Chavez put her head down during the closing benediction and touched her palms together in prayer. The pastor said, “Lord, we ask that you give us the strength to protect those who are marginalized.”

She then made her way outside to a car that was waiting for her as the church’s bells rang to announce her freedom. She didn’t know yet where she was going. Chavez only knew that she was leaving those walls after three years and that it felt like a blessing.

Rain or shine.