A day in the life of José Figueroa

On Nov. 17, The Times spent part of a day with the Langley father of three who has claimed sanctuary in a Walnut Grove church

The Figuero family sits down for breakfast together on a Sunday morning at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church. José Figueroa has sought sanctuary at the church to avoid deportation to El Salvador.

Cars rush by along busy 88 Avenue in Walnut Grove, and the world marches forward while José Figueroa can only look out the window of the Walnut Grove church where he sought sanctuary two months ago.

He can’t step outside to enjoy a moment in the sun, or take his kids to school, or go to work. Every day is much like the day before.

Figueroa sleeps in a single bed in one of the office spaces at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church. He can use their kitchen to feed himself and there is one shower there to stay clean. His wife Ivania and their three children visit at least once a week, sometimes the kids stay overnight.

“They play hide-and-go-seek and run around,” said Figueroa. On Sunday mornings, the whole family worships together, gathered with a congregation and pastor who support them.

Most days Figueroa can be found in the church’s boardroom, working feverishly on his laptop, researching ways he can stay with his family and fight a deportation order against him.

He is well versed in legal terminology now.

Figueroa came to Canada legally more than 16 years ago from El Salvador. He raised his family here. But then in 2010, Immigration Canada decided to look into his status in this country. They determined that his affiliation as a university student with a group fighting the dictatorship in his home country was reason enough to consider him a risk. Since then, his world has turned upside down.

Despite his pleas, hiring of lawyers and support from many politicians, he was ordered deported this year. When the Canadian Border Services Agency put out a warrant for his arrest in September, he sought sanctuary in the church.

Figueroa says members of the CBSA come by every day to check that he hasn’t stepped outside the building.

If he did, they would make an arrest, and send him to a detention centre to await his hearing, which is set for Jan. 15.

On that day in 2014, Figueroa’s lawyer will ask that he be allowed to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds.

The Figueroas have three children, José Jr., Esmeralda and Ruby. They were born at Langley Memorial Hospital. Now, they come to visit their dad on the weekends because they all attend school during the week.

The girls like to stay overnight.

“I don’t know how we managed to fit Esmeralda, Ruby and myself into a tiny bed, I almost fell off a couple of times,” said Figueroa. “Being in sanctuary gives me the comfort that at least I will be able to see them once a week.”

A personal trainer comes three times a week to see Figueroa, volunteering his time, to exercise with him.

Figueroa said he is starting to miss the freedom of being able to go wherever he wants. He misses conversing with people and urges people to come visit.

On Thanksgiving, when his daughters stayed the night, there was a loud banging on the front doors of the church.

“Esmeralda got scared. She thought it was the CBSA coming to get me.  But it was a neighbour who brought us some turkey.”

Moments of kindness from the community come often.

Figueroa is grateful to his church for offering him sanctuary. It isn’t the ideal situation for the church, but staff and the congregation have been supportive.

His Christmas will be spent inside the church, too.

Until then, he has decided to write a letter a day. “(It’s) kind of like an Advent calendar, just that, instead of chocolates, I write letters to the ministers to give the family the only gift we want: Hope for the future of my children and to have this matter resolved, once and for all.”

He would love to be able to spend Christmas in his own home with his family. But the CBSA refuses to drop the arrest warrant even though the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the deportation order be stayed until his hearing.

“The immigration system is pushing immigrants to crack under the pressure,” he said. “This situation is stripping immigrants of hope for the future.”

But hope is what Figueroas continue to hang onto.

“I’m still hoping the Ministry of Public Safety will do the right thing and drop the deportation order altogether,” said Figueroa.

He was the breadwinner in the family, but he hasn’t brought in a paycheque in two  months.

“It has been hard, it is hard, but we are doing what we can,” he said. Neighbours have been amazing, he added. They often help take the kids. Donations come into the family, but money is very tight.

Rallies of support for Figueroa were held around the country and at the Canadian Embassy in El Salvador in October.

More than 100 people showed up to a rally outside the Walnut Grove church on Oct. 12 and many rallies have taken place outside the CBSA offices in Vancouver and in Ottawa.

Many continue to write letters, to rally and to post videos on YouTube.

In 2012, Immigration Canada ruled that it would deport Figueroa based on his past affiliation as a student in El Salvador with the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the civil war.

The FMLN  is now the democratically elected government of El Salvador. To that end, in October the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with Figueroas lawyer, that the FMLN is not on any terrorist lists in Canada, and therefore, the deportation order would be stayed until the Jan. 15 hearing.

Langley MP Mark Warawa said Figueroa poses no risk to Canadians and is a benefit to society, working all these years to provide for his family.

If Figueroa is deported, his wife, who has been granted permanent residency status, will have to raise their three young children by herself.

The Figueroas came to Canada legally 16 years ago. The ‘We Are José’ support group spans several countries, and is supported by celebrities and many politicians.

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