After three years inside a Salt Lake church, Vickey Chavez strode outside its front doors and into light rain Thursday, arms outstretched and palms to the sky.

This week marks the first time she and her two young daughters can finally make their way down the steps without fear.

“We have been waiting for this day for more than 39 months, and I’m here sharing with everybody that I’m free right now,” a beaming Chavez said at a news conference. “I can’t believe it.”

The family has lived at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City since January 2018, fearful that immigration authorities would round them up if they left its doors.

That changed on Monday when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Salt Lake City granted Chavez a one-year stay of removal from deportation.

It comes after President Joe Biden’s administration announced a shift to apprehend only those who pose a threat to national security, have committed certain felony crimes or recently crossed the border.

Vicky Chavez leaves the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Chavez left the church, where she has spent more than three years living in sanctuary, after receiving a one-year stay of removal. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In a joyful gathering at the church, several chanted “Vicky es libre!” and applauded Chavez from the pews before taking turns embracing her. Supporters included the mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.

Chavez said she struggles to find adequate words to thank the church where she and her two daughters, ages 3 and 9, have spent the last 1,168 days. She remained optimistic even when it seemed her case was going nowhere.

“I never lost hope,” she said.

Chavez fled her home country because of an abusive boyfriend there, she said. She first sought asylum in the United States in 2014 and exhausted appeals of a deportation order after she was denied asylum.

She was on her way to the airport in January 2018 when she decided to accept the church’s offer to stay there instead. She feared returning to Honduras would put her kids in danger.

Leaders of the congregation and elected officials from Salt Lake City praised her courage and called for Congress to pass immigration reform that would help others like Chavez.

“Vicky’s life is no longer on hold,” the Rev. Tom Goldsmith said. “She leaves this church with a full grasp of the English language, a couple hundred friends, and the confidence to pursue her dreams.”

Chavez, who’s considering a career as an accountant, has lived with her daughters in an upstairs room typically used for Sunday school lessons. She’s taken up knitting, while her older daughter attended online school. The family has dreamed of being able to visit Disneyland, or just eating ice cream together at a nearby park.

The Unitarian church was Utah’s first to offer a person sanctuary from deportation.

Federal immigration officials have long directed officers not to arrest people at places of worship under a “sensitive locations” policy that has also typically applied to other settings like schools and hospitals.

Chavez is one of several women taking sanctuary in churches who have sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over about $60,000 in civil fines they faced for not leaving the country. Last month, the Salt Lake church joined them as a plaintiff in the case, and the Rev. Goldsmith penned a Thursday op-ed against the fees in the New York Times.

Vicky Chavez speaks during a press conference at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Chavez left the church, where she has spent more than three years living in sanctuary, on Thursday after receiving a one-year stay of removal. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson paused to fight back emotion as she praised Chavez, describing how the young mother risked traveling to the U.S. in search of asylum and was met with compassion by the congregation and others in Salt Lake City.

Immigration attorney Skyler Anderson noted his client’s experience isn’t unique.

“There are millions of Vickys in this country. I’ve represented many of them,” he said, but not each can find a place to take sanctuary. “Congress needs to act.”

After the Biden administration announced the new guidelines for immigration enforcement, Chavez applied again for a stay of removal. The request was denied last month, Anderson said in an interview, but on Monday an email from ICE notified him it had been granted.

“If you want to go run out and dance in the street for a minute and then come back and read the rest of this email, I understand, go do that,” Anderson recalled telling his client.

She had trouble believing the news.

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“Is this a joke?” Chavez responded.

Outside the church, wearing a puffy jacket over a dark red gown, Chavez said she would celebrate the milestone by spending the day with her family and eating tacos.

She said she’ll continue to advocate for other undocumented people in similar situations.

“I’m ready for a fight outside for people who really need me,” she said.

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