Under the watchful eye of William Penn near Philadelphia City Hall, Javier Flores Garcia stepped into fresh air for the first time in almost 11 months Wednesday morning.
“It was painful watching parents with their kids walk around here and not be able to do the same,” he said. “It’s very hard and very difficult.”
The 40-year-old undocumented immigrant found sanctuary at the United Methodist Church on Broad and Arch streets shortly after President Donald Trump was elected to office. It was a form of resistance, but also an attempt to protect his family by remaining close enough to still see them and be a part of their lives.
“True liberation is rooted in love. This is a love story,” the Rev. Robin Hynicka, senior pastor at the church, said. “It’s traumatic to see him go. But it’s more traumatic to see him detained and separated from his family.”
Flores has lived in Philadelphia on and off since 1997. He has been caught several times crossing into the United States from his native Puebla, the Mexican state recently ravaged by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake. On a few of those occasions, he voluntarily turned around but always came back to reunite with his wife and three children.
He also has a driving under the influence conviction.
In 2004, the former landscaper was stabbed by two men carrying boxcutters and left for dead in Bensalem. While in the hospital, he helped local officials track down and prosecute his attackers. Because of his help and otherwise good standing in the community, his deportation orders were dropped, Flores’ lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, said.
Flores is now eligible for a U Visa, which grants temporary status to victims of crime who help authorities investigate and prosecute. After leaving the church Wednesday, he went to the immigration office to have his ankle monitor removed and to begin the process of gaining temporary status.
"He can get a work permit and be with his family now," Gian-Grasso said.
Flores' release coincided with Trump’s visit to Pennsylvania. He will appear Wednesday evening alongside U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the former mayor of Hazleton who tried to introduce an anti-immigrant ordinance during his tenure. His act making English the official language and fining businesses that hired undocumented workers was ruled unconstitutional after a lawsuit.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney has repeatedly challenged the Trump administration’s immigration policy, declaring the city a sanctuary and refusing to ask police to volunteer the immigration status of people.
Last month, the city sued U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the rights of sanctuary cities. Philadelphia hopes to prevent Sessions from imposing new and “unprecedented” requirements on grant funds as a backlash to the city's leniency toward undocumented immigrants.
“The mayor is very happy for Javier and his family,” Lauren Hitt, spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said. “It doesn’t make any sense we have an immigration policy that would tear families apart and force hard-working people out.”
Kenney and Flores have met at the church on at least one occasion, Hitt said. They will likely meet again when Flores’ immigration process is complete.
On Wednesday, clergy members called Flores “a citizen of the world.” He spent his time painting, fixing odds and ends and cooking in the church kitchen while living there.
He first met advocates from immigrant rights group Juntos while Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015. At that time, Flores was in the midst of being held at the York County and Pike County detention centers, where he was detained for 16 months. His daughter, now 12, held a sign that read “Help Us Father.” The pope stopped to bless her, the family said.
Juntos helped Flores find legal representation and also seek medical attention for his children, some of whom were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing their father’s ordeal, Gian-Grasso said.
“When you see the kids’ faces, there is no way you can say no,” Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, said. “What this [outcome] means is resistance works. This is a day to celebrate freedom.”
Flores has been granted deferred status, which means he can live and work in the U.S. and continue to apply for visas. His current designation prevents Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials from arresting him at a time when raids are sweeping the nation.
Recently, 107 undocumented immigrants were arrested in Pennsylvania. More than 20 percent were in Philadelphia, the city with the most arrests. Los Angeles was second with 101 arrests.
Among those arrested in Philadelphia was a citizen of the Dominican Republic who entered the country illegally and had previous convictions for possession of firearms, ICE said. The 498 people arrested in the national operation came from 42 countries and 312 of them had criminal convictions.
With the threat of more ICE actions lingering, having a temporary reprieve feels like a blessing, Flores said.
“We have to say to everyone in a similar situation as me, ‘Keep fighting, because after the torment comes peace,’” he said.