What Will Trump's Exit Mean for St. Louis' Immigrants and Refugees?

Alex Garcia has spent more than three years in sanctuary.
Alex Garcia has spent more than three years in sanctuary. STEVEN DUONG

At some point during the Trump presidency, it became clear that there would be no mercy for Alex Garcia.

The construction worker fled his Poplar Bluff home in September 2017 at age 36 and took refuge in a Maplewood church. A married father and stepfather of five children, Garcia had been told the summer of Trump's first year in office to surrender to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement so the agency could deport him to Honduras. Instead, he sought sanctuary in the basement of Christ Church.

It was a desperate move, not to mention one that could fail if federal agents decided to scrap their longstanding practice of not pulling people out of churches. But Garcia hoped to buy a little time to work out a new agreement with the government. Under the Obama administration, ICE had twice granted him temporary permission to stay in the United States.

Ideally, Garcia thought, he would return to Poplar Bluff before the year was out. But that's not the way it played out.

From Trump's first days in office, the new president and hardline advisers worked to make the United States a hostile place for those who weren't born here. They all but sawed off the pipeline for asylum seekers, fought to gut the popular DREAM Act, refined a Muslim ban over and over in hopes of dragging it just over the legal threshold, and yanked children — even babies — away from their parents at the border, locking them in cages to discourage further immigration.

"The deep cruelty of the Trump administration and their entrenched pride in being hardline was apparent early on," says Nicole Cortés, an immigration attorney and co-director of the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project.

In St. Louis, the effects were widespread, hitting universities' international students and faculty, setting Dreamers adrift and shaping the face of the city through the omission of thousands of refugees and immigrants who were blocked from legal entry.

Garcia and his family were among the first wave of people to have their lives upended by Trump's policies, and they could be among the first to benefit from changes that President-elect Joe Biden is expected to make after he takes office Wednesday. But after four years of local immigrants, refugees and their advocates fighting to survive under the previous administration, it's unclear when and to what extent Biden and a new Democrat-majority Congress will reshape the country's immigration system.

"Biden is not going to come in and wave his magic wand and everything is going to be perfect," Garcia's wife Carly says. "It's going to take the American people to fix this."

Advocates know immigration concerns will be competing for a spot among an overload of issues facing the new administration, including triaging the United States' botched pandemic response and shoring up a flailing economy.

"While immigration is important to the new administration, it hasn't really been announced as one of the four or five top priorities," says Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, adding that she doesn't expect any changes that require congressional approval to occur anytime soon as a result.

Sara John, executive director of the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, says Biden needs to go beyond just undoing Trump's damage. She and other advocates fought a lot of the Obama-era immigration policies, and she worries that the firehose blast of terrible rules during the Trump years has so changed the landscape that allies will grow complacent simply with a return to what had been considered normal.

"That's a really dangerous space for allies to be in," says John, who along with Cortés has worked relentlessly on Garcia's case only to see one door after another slammed — literally, at times — in their faces.

"I'm cautiously optimistic 2021 will be different," she says.

Cortés agrees. Both women are thrilled to see Trump leave but know there is a lot of work ahead.

"At least now," Cortés says, "it's not just deaf ears."

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