After over two years living in sanctuary in the Langley Walnut Grove Lutheran church, José Figueroa was granted an exemption from a deportation order on Monday, a decision that allowed him to go home in time for Christmas.
"I am very happy" Figueroa told The Times.
"This is a good thing. Justice has finally been done."
He delayed his departure from the church until Wednesday, December 23, his birthday, to allow friends and supporters a chance to attend.
At 2 p.m. on the dot, he took one hesitant step outside with his wife and children at his side and burst into tears.
"I am free," he said.
Then he stepped all the way out.
More than 100 friends and supporters started singing "Happy Birthday" and chanting "we are José", a reference to an internet campaign to keep him in Canada.
Figueroa began to smile and laugh.
Then he went back inside for a press conference, saying he entered the church as a free man now.
Figueroa said he had been discussing lifting the deportation order with the CBSA for several days, but the phone call from a CBA officer early Monday afternoon still came as a surprise.
"It was 12:15 p.m." Figueroa recalled.
"He (the officer) said, 'congratulations, your (residency) has been approved, so we are not looking to arrest you any more. You don't have to give us your passport'."
"It just came out of the blue."
The phone call was followed by a emailed Dec. 21 letter from Citizenship and Immigration Canada that said John McCallum, the new federal minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship had overturned the May 5, 2010 decision that declared Figueroa inadmissible to Canada.
His permanent resident application has been approved in principle, and as a result, the deportation order and arrest warrant have been cancelled.
The new minister "found that there are sufficient humanitarian and compassionate considerations in your case to warrant an exemption," said the letter, signed by A. Maekawa, a senior immigration officer in Vancouver.
Figueroa thinks the recent change of federal government likely played a role in the decision.
"It has a lot to do with it," he said.
"If it was still a Conservative government, there would still be an arrest warrant for me."
Figueroa entered Canada legally from El Salvador 18 years ago, but he was ordered deported from Canada for belonging to the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a group linked to violent acts against the repressive regime that ruled the country during the civil war from 1980 to 1992.
Even though the FMLN went on to win a nonviolent and democratic election that saw them formally recognized by the government of Canada, under tough new anti-terrorism rules, the connection was enough to force his deportation.
An arrest warrant for Figueroa was issued by the CBSA, leading the father of three Canadian-born children to seek asylum at the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church.
Lifting the deportation order was long overdue, he said.
"It's something they should have done a long time ago."
Now, he intends to renew his application to become a legal landed immigrant and plans to study to become a lawyer.
His wife Ivania was thrilled.
"So many emotions (when José told me)," she said.
"I cry, I jump. It was so emotional for all my family, for my kids. We were just so happy, we cry."
Then they started phoning friends and supporters.
The church has announced a celebration will be held on the day when Figueroa takes his first official step outside at 2 p.m.
“This decision (by the minister) allows me to safely be reunited with my family," Figueroa said.
"My family and I are happy not only for our family, but also for many other immigrants who can have a positive precedent to give them hope."
The first thing Figueroa plans to after he leaves the church is visit Rodney Watson, an American soldier who has lived in sanctuary at the Downtown Eastside’s First United Church since 2009, when Canadian immigration officials ordered him deported.
"I'm going to go visit him and ... give him hope there is a solution that will come to him, too," Figueroa said.
- with files from Monique Tamminga