British Columbia·Video

Jose Figueroa leaves church sanctuary after deportation order withdrawn

A Langley, B.C., man, who has been living in sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation, has his first taste of freedom in two years, just in time for his birthday and Christmas.

'Finally I am free!' Jose Figueroa says as he holds his wife and children

Jose Figueroa has been living in sanctuary in a Langley church for two years 0:45

A Salvadoran refugee, who has been living in sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation, has his first taste of freedom in two years, just in time for his birthday and Christmas.

Jose Figueroa has been a resident of Langley, B.C., for nearly two decades. He began living in the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church two years ago, after the Canadian government had moved to deport him for his political activities in El Salvador nearly two decades ago.

On Monday, he learned he can stay in Canada. Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum found "sufficient humanitarian and compassionate considerations" in his case to warrant a rare exemption.

"Finally I am free!" said an emotional Figueroa as he left the church alongside his family on Wednesday. "I just want to thank everybody for all the support that has been given to us."

A boisterous crowd sang Happy Birthday as Figueroa hugged his wife and kids and sobbed. 

Battle continues

But Figueroa says his family's battle isn't over yet.

"This issue has to be resolved. I haven't been granted citizenship. We should have become citizens in 2004," he said. 

"There is no proof that I did anything wrong ... there is no proof that the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) is a terrorist organization. It is not. It hasn't been. So nobody has to suffer in this situation."

Jose Figueroa holds up a copy of the letter from the federal government granting him a rare exemption to his deportation order. (CBC)

Figueroa said others have been in sanctuary for up to six years for their affiliation with the FMLN.

"Canada has to recover the place that it always had," he said. "It has to show compassion. And that compassion has to be shown to everybody, no matter where they are coming from."

Mark Warawa, the Conservative MP for Langley-Aldergrove, has been pushing for an exemption for Figueroa for years. 

"On issues like this, they're non-partisan. We work together," he said. 

"I'm thrilled at the outcome and as I say, John McCallum is minister, he gets the credit. I'm thrilled. This is what we've been hoping for, for a number of years, and you can't get better than to get a gift like this at Christmas."

Ruled 'inadmissable' in 2010

Figueroa claimed refugee status in Canada in 1997. But in 2010, years after Figueroa came to Canada and had three children, immigration officials ruled him "inadmissible" and moved to deport him.

His wife and Canadian-born son and daughters were allowed to stay, but he was told to return to El Salvador.

Instead, Figueroa, who had lived in Langley for 16 years, refused to leave his family and in 2013, took refuge in the church.

Figueroa said he became a target because of his affiliation with FMLN, a group involved in the insurrection movement against El Salvador's former military dictatorship.

In 1992, the FMLN became a legal political party in El Salvador — a party that has elected the country's last two presidents.

Figueroa's situation changed on Monday when he got a letter from immigration officials, granting an exemption.

Lawyer Peter Edelman said the use of this type of exemption is exceedingly rare and was nearly phased out under the Conservative government.

With files from On the Coast

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