One-thousand, three hundred and five days.
José Chicas’s first day living in Durham’s School for Conversion was June 27, 2017. On the 1,305th day, he got into his wife’s white Toyota Corolla, buckled his seatbelt, and headed home to Raleigh.
It’s a short drive, one Chicas considered making countless times while in sanctuary. It must’ve felt like an impossible distance until Thursday afternoon when he heard he could go home.
His departure looked more like a wedding send-off than a move: dozens of neighbors circled the car to cheer Chicas on. One person clanged a cowbell. Someone else held up a sign cut into the shape of a heart with the words “love is the only solution,” painted on.
Last October, Chicas had a whiteboard up in the yellow house, counting down the days to November 3. He and his family saw the presidential election as the fulcrum teetering his two options.
If Biden won, he could stay in North Carolina.
If Trump won, he would likely be deported to El Salvador and be barred from the United States for a decade.
Biden won. And he signed a moratorium on deportations for 100 days in the first hours of his presidency. José Chicas was told by his lawyers the next day that he was able to leave sanctuary.
“Three years and seven months is easy to say, but it’s not easy to live,” Sandra Marquina, Chicas’s wife, told the crowd Friday afternoon.
Marquina, Chicas, and two of the couples’ four children greeted neighbors and journalists awaiting Chicas’s first steps out of his temporary home. Chicas’s youngest son, Ezequiel, was 11 years old when his father was given a deportation date. That prompted the boy to ask for help at a Raleigh rally nearly four years ago, which caught the attention of Rev. William J. Barber III.
“Without your mom and dad, you cannot know what is good and bad,” he said at the time. “I hope you can help me with my father not leaving me.”
Ezequiel says he no longer remembers what he said, but says God gave him the words that day. Now, he and his family have plans to go to the lake, go to parks, maybe even go to Florida.
“I just wake up and I get to know my dad is in the same house as me,” the high schooler says. “I don’t have to go visit him somewhere far away. That brings a lot of joy to me.”
Chicas has his own ideas for celebrating: Chinese food and ice cream.
“At N.C. State, where my wife is working, they have good, good ice cream,” Chicas says. Some days, he says, he’d look at his car in the driveway and consider making the drive. He credits his faith for giving him the will to stay for so long.
Two more North Carolinians, Eliseo Jimenez and Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, are still living in the churches they took sanctuary in. Reverend Doug Long of Umstead Park UCC says Jimenez is speaking with his lawyer about leaving the Raleigh church—while deportations are stalled for 100 days, detention could still be on the table. The Biden administration will spend this time reviewing current enforcement protocols.
Chicas is unable to work under the new order, and he has a long road to citizenship. But on an abnormally warm January afternoon, those days seem far from his mind—it’s his first day free.
“Okay, we love you!” he said, his face radiating joy as he walked off the steps, onto the grass, over the sidewalk, into the car, and into the world.
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