LANGLEY, B.C. — He first put one toe out the door, then backed up a few steps and finally Jose Figueroa lunged forward with both feet through the front entrance of the church that had protected him from deportation for the last two years.
The asylum seeker from El Salvador sobbed joyously in the embrace of his wife and then pumped his fists in victory outside Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley, B.C.
"Finally, finally I am free,'' he exclaimed on Wednesday to cheers by dozens of supporters who wept along with the man before spontaneously launching into a round of Happy Birthday.
Figueroa stands with his family outside Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley, B.C. on Dec. 23. 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/CP)
Figueroa left the church sanctuary on his 49th birthday after gaining an exemption on Monday to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds from Immigration Minister John McCallum.
In July 2014, he won a judicial review from Federal Court that ordered his case be examined again by immigration officials. But it wasn't until the new Liberal minister intervened this month that he was granted freedom.
Figueroa was declared inadmissible to Canada in May 2010, despite having lived in B.C. with his family since 1997. An arrest warrant was issued by the Canada Border Services Agency in October 2013, prompting him to take sanctuary.
Standing outside the church on Wednesday, Figueroa beamed and spun around to nod at the cross atop the building. He then addressed members of the congregation that have supported him throughout his ordeal.
"This is a big experience that needs to be shared, not only with you guys but with all of Canada,'' said Figueroa, who was wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with a large maple leaf.
"Canada has to recover the place that we always had. It's a country that shows compassion and that compassion has to be shown to everyone, no matter where they are coming from.''
"Finally, finally I am free."
He said his first plan upon leaving would be to pay a surprise visit to Rodney Watson, a former American soldier who took sanctuary in a Vancouver church six years ago.
Figueroa said he wanted to bring hope to Watson, who was ordered deported in 2009 and is facing military imprisonment for refusing a second deployment to Iraq as a war resister.
He then gestured to a stoic mother and her two red-eyed teenage sons, who were standing just behind him inside the sliding door enclosure of the church. The Juhasz family from Hungary took refuge in the same church in December 2014 and have yet to resolve their status.
"Let's everyone gather together and find a solution for them as well,'' Figueroa implored.
Hopes for permanent residency
Figueroa must now complete the process to get his permanent residency documents, a task his former lawyer Peter Edelmann expects to go smoothly. He said the case was "absurd'' from the beginning.
"Unfortunately what's happened ... is you have (immigration) officers who've been given a big hammer. They run around and everything starts to look like a nail. Jose go caught up in that,'' he said in an interview.
"He was a student organizer for a broad-based civil rights movement in a country that was in the throes of a very, very brutal dictatorship.''
Reunited with kids, wife
Figueroa, a father of three, plans to study for the LSAT law exam and hopes to gain expertise to help other refugees.
His 18-year-old son, who has autism, said he hopes his dad will use his spare time to play video games with him. He also wants his dad to teach him how to drive.
"Life was hard when I didn't have my dad to support me,'' Jose Jr. said in an interview. "Deep down I just love him.
Figueroa and his wife escaped to Canada in 1997 after he received death threats in El Salvador. He had supported a popular resistance against a U.S.-backed military regime that terrorized the people during a civil war in the 1980s.
He was denied asylum by federal immigration officials who decided his membership in the rebel group, called the FMLN, had links to terrorism. A Federal Court judge called that decision "unreasonable'' and found he was a non-combatant political activist trying to motivate university students to achieve democratic reform.
El Salvador voted the FMLN into power in 2009 and it has diplomatic relations with Canada.
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