AUSTIN, Texas - When the doors to Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church swung open Wednesday morning, Hilda Ramirez walked out, gave a big smile, and raised her hands in celebration.
"Thank you so much for help me, for much time and support me," said Ramirez.
Her walk out of this sanctuary and into a nearby field of spring flowers brought tears to her eyes. It's the first time in five years she’s been able to go outside without the fear of being arrested by immigration agents. "Yes it’s different," Ramirez said when asked how the day felt.
The church has provided Hilda and her son Ivan with sanctuary after she illegally entered the country in order to escape violence in her country of Guatemala. On Wednesday in an online news conference, immigration advocates announced Hilda has been given a one-year stay from removal. She described getting the news through a translator
"I was surprised when my lawyer called me yesterday and said hey you got to stay. I was like m my, really? I could not believe it, I was so tired of living in church every day of my life," said Ramirez.
A similar order was provided to Alirio Gamez, who, like Hilda, is living in sanctuary at a different church in central Austin. "I feel very happy that I'm finally able to return to an almost normal life," said Gamez.
A stay was not granted to Hilda’s son Ivan, but he does qualify for a special immigrant juvenile visa which provides some protection as he continues to attend school in Austin
"He turned 15 and he still in the same situation but I’m very happy that I’m at last will be able to go out outside and walk outside as I have always dreamed of," said Ramirez.
The trips will include finally being able to watch her son play in a soccer match instead of kicking the ball around the church.
The sanctuary church situation is an example of how emotional and volatile the immigration debate can be. An example of how dangerous happened just a few weeks ago when a man came here to the church with a can of gas. A picture was taken of the man during the incident just before his arrest.
Rev Jim Rigby says the man poured gas on several church bushes and believes the man was motivated by recent political rhetoric. He is upset about the hate toward people of different but still offered love to the man who allegedly tried to set a fire on church property.
"Well you have to, but you just can’t let them hurt somebody else. And I’m sure he thinks he’s making the country safe from somebody that the president of the United States said was dangerous," said Rev. Rigby.
The Reverend went on to say the attack won’t stop him from helping other people like Hilda. There is also the understanding the victory they shared Wednesday is limited and the fight is not yet over. Attorneys for Ramirez and Gamez say they will now try to get both of them work permits, but that process could take several months to complete.
Some of the immigrants may try to move into apartments but many will most likely stay in their sanctuary churches. It’s estimated that there are between 40 and 50 people living in sanctuary churches across the nation. Earlier in the year immigration advocates made a plea to the new Biden administration urging them not to overlook those who are living in sanctuary.