The Trump-Loving Town and Its Favorite Undocumented Immigrant

Alex Garcia has been hiding in a church for 18 months. Poplar Bluff’s citizens miss him.

“Can’t we adopt him?” Bruce Peterson (far right) asked. Garcia’s other supporters include John Polasek (far left); Corbit Barnet (front left, in baseball cap); Garcia’s ex-girlfriend Amber Legrand (in glasses and blue plaid shirt); Garcia and Legrand’s children, Ayden, 13 (in yellow plaid shirt), and Maddux, 11 (in glasses); and Garcia’s father- and mother-in-law, Benji and Kris Zuniga (in front of post, middle). Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson
“Can’t we adopt him?” Bruce Peterson (far right) asked. Garcia’s other supporters include John Polasek (far left); Corbit Barnet (front left, in baseball cap); Garcia’s ex-girlfriend Amber Legrand (in glasses and blue plaid shirt); Garcia and Legrand’s children, Ayden, 13 (in yellow plaid shirt), and Maddux, 11 (in glasses); and Garcia’s father- and mother-in-law, Benji and Kris Zuniga (in front of post, middle). Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson
“Can’t we adopt him?” Bruce Peterson (far right) asked. Garcia’s other supporters include John Polasek (far left); Corbit Barnet (front left, in baseball cap); Garcia’s ex-girlfriend Amber Legrand (in glasses and blue plaid shirt); Garcia and Legrand’s children, Ayden, 13 (in yellow plaid shirt), and Maddux, 11 (in glasses); and Garcia’s father- and mother-in-law, Benji and Kris Zuniga (in front of post, middle). Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson

On a rainy spring day in 2002, Alex Garcia jumped off the slow-moving freight train, hungry for a meal. He’d been traveling for two weeks, alternately riding on the outdoor platform at the rear of a railcar and walking alongside the tracks. He hadn’t eaten in three days.

Garcia’s journey originated in Honduras, and he first hopped a train after crossing the border in Laredo, Texas. He wandered down a road, carrying a plastic bag with an extra set of clothes. “I thought I was in Houston,” he told me. He’d planned to meet a friend there. In fact, he was in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

Bruce Peterson, a contractor who owns several rental properties, vividly remembers the sight of a drenched, noticeably gaunt man coming up the road. He looked Hispanic, unusual in Poplar Bluff, and he looked lost. Peterson beckoned him over, out of the rain, under a metal car canopy he and a friend were dismantling. Though Garcia spoke no English, he was able to convey that he’d help the two men with the job. Peterson suggested he rest first and gave him a can of soda and an apple, which Garcia devoured. Garcia then picked up a screw gun and gestured to the top of the canopy. “Next thing I know, he was on top taking it apart,” Peterson said.

Once they were done, Peterson signaled to Garcia to get into his pickup, that they’d get something to eat. Garcia, who said he intuitively trusted Peterson, didn’t hesitate. They drove to Peterson’s in-laws, who made dinner for the young man. Afterward, Peterson gave him $50 and a bag of food, then drove him to a Mexican restaurant where he knew the manager. There Garcia consumed yet another meal.

“I’m a good judge of character,” Peterson told me. “I didn’t want to throw him to the dogs.” Peterson, a burly man with thick forearms and deep-set eyes, gets choked up talking about this moment. “Garcia changed me,” he said.

Poplar Bluff is located 130 miles south of St. Louis on the edge of the Ozarks. The town of 17,000 is neither struggling nor thriving — it’s managing. The downtown looks forlorn, with boarded-up storefronts and cobblestone streets. But the main thoroughfare has in recent years exploded with retail, including a new Starbucks, which, like it or not, often suggests that a place has a future. Most people in Poplar Bluff work in retail or farming (soybeans and rice) or at the local hospital or one of several manufacturing plants. Garcia did construction, usually for the town’s biggest developer, renovating two malls. He was by all accounts a hard worker and highly skilled. What he didn’t know how to do he would teach himself through YouTube videos, including how to bowhunt. His former co-­workers speak of his kindness. One told of how Garcia would mow the lawns of elderly homeowners for free after work. “I didn’t grow up around people like him,” another said of Garcia. “But if the world had a few more people like him, the world would be a better place.”

People talk about Garcia, who is now married and the father of five, in the past tense because he no longer lives in Poplar Bluff. Facing deportation to Honduras, he has for the past 18 months been holed up in the basement of a church outside St. Louis. ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has a long-standing policy of not entering places of worship. In the 1970s and ’80s, more than 500 churches gave refuge to immigrants fleeing the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala; under Trump, an estimated 38 churches are doing the same.

In the 2016 election, 80 percent of Butler County (Poplar Bluff is the county seat) voted for Trump. That includes virtually all those who want Garcia “home” — home being Poplar Bluff, not Honduras. Garcia’s allies are an unlikely collection of mostly ­working-class people, the very ones who Trump insists “pay the price for mass illegal immigration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.” This is as much their story as Garcia’s. For some, coming into contact with the now-37-year-old Honduran immigrant has changed their view of Trump and of people who enter this country illegally. Others are still wrestling with competing loyalties: to Garcia and to a president who has denounced immigrants as rapists, murderers, and animals, and who, in recent weeks, has turned up the rhetoric even higher, declaring that “our country is full” and threatening to shut down the border.

Some five years after he left Garcia at the Mexican restaurant, Peterson threw a family party at the same place. When the group was done with dinner and margaritas and beers, the waitress told Peterson that the bill had been taken care of. Then Garcia emerged from the kitchen, where he worked as a dishwasher. Peterson did a double take — he hadn’t seen him since their first encounter. They hugged, and Garcia, who now spoke some English, thanked Peterson for his help. Telling me this story, Peterson shook his head. “The rules are the rules, but it’s just weird when you know someone. It’s just not right.”

Garcia in his church-basement home. Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson

At Christ Church, in a small suburb of St. Louis called Maplewood, I descended a spiral staircase into Garcia’s apartment, in previous incarnations a storage space and a youth room. He’s incredibly handy — he in fact installed these stairs — and so has slowly been making the place feel more like home. He installed kitchen cabinets and painted the walls lime green to brighten up the room. On the wall above the washing machine, his wife, Carly, stenciled BUT AS FOR ME & MY HOUSE SERVE THE LORD.

Garcia, who is soft-spoken and almost catlike in his movements, told the church’s pastor, Rebecca Turner, that he stays busy to keep from getting depressed. He gets up early to help with preparations for Buzz’s Hawaiian Grill, a food truck that rents the church’s kitchen, then he finds something to repair. He has repainted the radiators, replaced the exit signs, painted the pastor’s office, and caulked the leaky windows. To improve his English, he listens to “Morning Edition” and Rush Limbaugh, though he’s tired of his rants. When I stop by, he’s usually covered in paint. Other congregations have asked Garcia to do woodworking for them — one needs a banister, another shelving.

In his basement apartment, sitting on a donated secondhand sofa, Garcia recounted his journey from Honduras to Poplar Bluff, one that, like many immigrants’, was marked by misdirection and happenstance. He grew up on the edge of the jungle, where no one had electricity or running water. His parents rented a small plot of land to grow corn, beans, and sugarcane — both to eat and to sell. The oldest of seven, Garcia dropped out of school in sixth grade to help his father farm. The family barely scraped by, so when Garcia turned 19, he decided to travel to the U.S. for a couple of years to earn money to send home. He packed a school backpack with his birth certificate and two sets of shirts and pants. He made sure to wear a worn pair of boots, because he’d heard that new shoes were in high demand among the gangs that preyed on people trying to make it to the U.S. He’d saved 2,000 lempira, or $125, and tucked some of the cash in his socks and sewed the rest into the waistband of his pants. By the time he arrived at the U.S. border a month later, he’d been robbed twice, both times by Mexican police, and was penniless. The first time Garcia crossed into the U.S., he got picked up by Immigration, held for two months, then shipped home to Honduras. Under U.S. law, those caught crossing the border illegally must wait ten years before reentering or risk being prosecuted for a felony. Garcia went back to the border anyway and worked for two years at a ranch on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, saving his wages and surveilling the river. Once he thought he had enough money, he waded across a stretch of water he’d sussed out and picked up the freight train that eventually took him to Poplar Bluff.

Garcia is deeply private, and when he first arrived at the church, Turner said, he barely spoke. He told me his story in fits and starts over the course of a number of visits. He initially hoped to simply help out his parents, but he felt so welcome in Poplar Bluff that one year turned into two, which turned into three. He had two sons with a local woman, and though the couple eventually broke up, they remain friendly. Then, in December 2007, he met Carly at a club; as open and direct as Garcia is reserved, she asked for his phone number. Soon they were dating. Sort of. Carly had a son by another man, and Garcia had his two boys, so they’d all go out, often to McDonald’s for Happy Meals. Within three years, the pair were married and eventually had two children together. (The marriage did not make him eligible for a green card because he’d reentered the country after being deported.) Garcia doted on his kids. He taught one to use a crossbow. He took them fishing and on long hikes in the nearby woods. His oldest son, Ayden, has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and Garcia has learned to be patient with him. Ayden doesn’t like to be touched, except by Garcia, whom he’ll snuggle up against as they watch television. “Ayden can do no wrong in Alex’s eyes,” Carly said.

When I spoke to Garcia’s friends, I sometimes wondered if they’d taken to him because of his quiet presence. Being with him can offer a comforting stillness, a solace for people living under trying circumstances — like John Polasek. The owner of the local Little Caesars, Polasek had to remake himself, just as Garcia did.

Polasek lived in Rochester, Michigan, north of Detroit, and for 17 years worked at one of the nation’s larger concrete manufacturers. For 15 of those years, he drove a cement mixer, helping to build subdivision after subdivision. He loved his job and had an instinct for concrete, knowing precisely when to put retarder in the mix to keep it from hardening. He earned enough to purchase a home worth $170,000. Right before the housing collapse, his boss — who sensed the troubles ahead — asked Polasek if he’d take a job in customer service, which meant a pay cut but more security. He took the new position; within a month, the company had closed ten of its 19 plants and John’s old position had disappeared. But the reprieve was short-lived. As the housing market dried up, Polasek was let go. “I felt betrayed,” he told me. He had a wife and two kids at home. His wife found work with a dog trainer, and Polasek took a minimum-wage job at a Little Caesars owned by a friend. He hoped he might learn the business so he could open a franchise of his own. He was 45, and the country he knew seemed to be collapsing around him — the 11 men on his street who weren’t already retired lost their jobs as well.

After three years of working for minimum wage, Polasek moved his family to the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio, to open a new franchise. In ten weeks, he lost $277,000, half of his savings. It was, he said, a bad location. In those final days, he’d get to work early so he could stop crying before his employees arrived for their shift. During the next year, he drove all over the Midwest, looking for the right spot for the restaurant. A friend told him about Poplar Bluff, and Polasek decided to give it another shot. He hired Garcia and Carly’s father, Benji Zuniga, to refurbish the store. After the job was done, Garcia would come by on his own time to pick up litter in the parking lot, and when Garcia worked in other parts of the mall, Polasek, who puts in 70-hour weeks, would often bring by lunch or dinner — pizza, of course — and sit with Garcia while he ate. “Two dads talking,” Polasek said. “His English is broken, but I could talk to him like he was a brother.” Polasek felt like an outsider in Poplar Bluff, and he considered Garcia his one friend. “He was my confidant,” he told me.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2015, Garcia drove his sister to the immigration offices in Kansas City, six hours away. She’d applied for asylum after fleeing from Honduras with her son to get away from a gang that had been trying to recruit him. She’d been in the country only two weeks, and Garcia didn’t want her to have to go alone. Strange as it may sound, he said he didn’t really worry about his own status — he’d been in Missouri so long he felt like he belonged there. But an ICE agent asked for Garcia’s identification and discovered that he was here illegally. What’s more, Garcia had been convicted of a misdemeanor for drunk driving eight years earlier, which came up when ICE ran a check. This was during Obama’s presidency, and deportations had reached an all-time high. The Obama administration had set three levels of priority for deportations; Garcia’s DUI put him in the second. His attorney won him a stay of removal, a kind of temporary pass that needs to be renewed annually. Under a memo from Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, ICE was urged to use discretion in whom it deported, weighing whether the individual posed a public-safety threat, for instance, or had close family ties. Garcia’s stay was renewed in 2016.

Then came Trump, who tightened prosecutorial discretion and announced a zero-tolerance policy for undocumented immigrants who’d committed a crime: Every one of them should go. The third time Garcia applied for renewal, he was denied. The only option, he was advised, might be to seek protection in a church — he’d heard about one near St. Louis. Carly balked. “I didn’t want to go against our government,” she said, “but I told my dad I’m not going to let them take the most amazing human being I ever met.” So she and Garcia decided he should seek sanctuary. Given the support Garcia had in town, they figured ICE would feel pressured to grant him another stay in a month or two.

Carly gathered letters backing her husband, many of which are as effusive in their praise of Garcia as they are critical of other undocumented immigrants (not to mention native-born impoverished Americans). Here’s a sampling:

—I understand this law was created to rid our country of criminals who are illegally in our country. Alex doesn’t belong in this group.

—You will NOT find this man out rioting in our streets, burning our flag, stealing hard working Americans IDS, abusing our Government assistance programs nor shouting “death to OUR president”!!! If you want to “deport” somebody, why not go to ANY major city and round the trouble makers off the streets and send THEM back to where they came from??? … I beg of you, do NOT take this man, Rene Alexander Garcia [his full name is Rene Alexander Garcia Maldonado], from his family and this country he loves so much.

—His work ethics are something that needs to be used as an example for those that are on public assistance and are too lazy to get a job and provide for their families. Alex has done more to ‘provide for the common good and promote the general welfare’ than many who are natural born citizens.

In addition to the 34 letters — including one from the mother of his first two children — 790 people signed a petition asking ICE to issue another stay of removal. In the meantime, Garcia had quietly disappeared.

Because the church in Maplewood wasn’t quite ready for him — it needed to install a kitchen and bathroom in the basement — Garcia spent the first month at a retirement home for nuns in rural Illinois. The day he arrived at Christ Church, Pastor Turner informed ICE of his new address. Extra cameras were installed for security, and the church implemented a system by which someone would always be there keeping an eye out for Immigration agents. Turner bought an air mattress for people to spend the night in the library. If ICE showed up, whoever was on duty would call Turner with a code word; she’d then contact the town’s mayor, who had vowed to do what he could to keep ICE from taking Garcia into custody. A few church members opposed housing Garcia, including Jan Pryibil, a retired office manager. “I’m a rule follower,” she said. “I count my groceries. If I have 21 items, I don’t go to the express lane. I thought when you come into the country, you need to do it the way you’re supposed to.” She told her husband, “I don’t know about this. It feels wrong.” Three members left, but Pryibil held on.

Slowly, she was won over. She’d see Garcia volunteering at the food pantry or feeding a homeless couple who slept in their car in the parking lot. He’d prepare meals for people who sought shelter in the church on cold winter nights. Pryibil took an eight-hour shift sitting in the library, monitoring the door. She’d knit to pass the time, but soon Garcia came to sit with her. He told her his story. She learned he liked apple pie, and when the food pantry had apples, she’d bake for him. (Garcia has put on 13 pounds, which Carly attributes to all the baking the women in the church do for him.) She asked Carly what foods he missed, and she’d bring him lunches, a bacon cheeseburger or a meal from Arby’s. “He just makes me happy seeing him,” Pryibil said. She has come to see the invective the president directs at immigrants as misguided and “too harsh.” She told me, “I guess you need to know a person’s story before you can make a decision one way or the other.” ​

Garcia and his wife with her son, Caleb, and the couple’s two children, Xander, 6, and Ariannalee, 4. Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson

It’s a Friday night in January, and despite icy roads, Carly and the five children have made the drive to the church. Garcia and his wife curl up on the couch, and their daughter throws her arms around his neck, squirming as if trying to get as close to her father as she can. Caleb, Carly’s son by another man, shows Garcia his grades on his phone, and Garcia lectures the boy about school, reminding him that he only finished sixth grade and wishes he’d gone on.

Caleb had written a letter to his congressman months earlier: Hello My name is Caleb. My stepdad is Rene Garcia. I want him to stay because he is my favorite dad in the whole whyed world. I am 11 years old. He is the only person I trust. If you took him I don’t know what I whould do with my life … He always takes me hunting, fishes, swimming … Please don’t take him. Pretty please. Love Caleb

Of the five, Caleb has been the most undone by Garcia’s absence. His grades have dropped, and his teachers have told Carly he seems distracted. He gets angry easily, and one day, Carly said, he snapped at her when she asked him to put the laundry in the dryer. “I’m leaving,” he announced. “I’m going to move in with my dad.”

“Why him?” Carly asked, genuinely curious. The boy hadn’t seen his biological father in a long while. “Not him, my real dad,” Caleb said. Carly embraced her son and he cried, which she took as a good sign.

Garcia comes alive when his family visits, but there are times, according to Pastor Turner, when he just disappears. He’d stay up all night making repairs in the church and then sleep all day just to avoid being around people, he later explained to her. He told me that he occasionally wonders whether it’d be best if he and his family just ran, went underground.

“Sometimes I want to give up, to pack everything up and move to another town,” Garcia said. But with a wife and five kids, he realizes, “I’d be easy to find.” He and Carly quickly dismissed moving to Honduras because of the violence there: Two years ago, Garcia’s brother-in-law was murdered on the street in his village and his 4-year-old nephew was shot.

At the church service the morning after Carly arrived to visit, she and Garcia sit in the third row of pews, holding hands, their daughter dug into Garcia’s side. The other kids sit directly in front of them. They were planning to leave right after the service to make basketball tryouts for Caleb, but he said he’d rather skip basketball this year if it meant extra time with his dad. It’s a small congregation, maybe 60 people, and informal. Many are dressed in jeans and sweaters. Carly gives what’s called “the Mission Moment,” a short presentation about how the mission of the church manifests in a congregant’s personal life. Carly recounts an episode from second grade, when kids at her school taunted a black boy. They began to throw rocks, and Carly shielded him. “Some people who knew me back then said I was scary,” she says, the congregation laughing knowingly. “Because I was always facing off against the bullies.” Carly’s relentless. She has visited Washington to meet with staff of Missouri’s two senators. She has protested outside the ICE offices in St. Louis. She has given interviews to TV stations. She has pestered her congressman, Jason Smith, though he has yet to meet with her. He also declined to be interviewed, issuing a short statement that said that because “this is a private legal matter, it would be inappropriate for the Congressman’s office to intervene.” Carly has unfriended a few people on Facebook, including an acquaintance who called immigrants “animals” and lambasted her efforts on her husband’s behalf. But the overwhelming majority of her fellow citizens have been supportive, she said. When she held an event for friends to Skype with Garcia, 80 people showed up.

After the service, Pryibil and others come by to hug Carly and Garcia. One church member whispers something familiar in my ear: “Alex has changed us.”

A few weeks ago, as Carly was driving with her three children, she began to feel disoriented and clammy. She felt as if she were seeing through a straw. Her body went numb. “Something’s not right,” she told Caleb, who was sitting next to her. Caleb grabbed the steering wheel and guided them into a parking lot, then called his grandfather. They got Carly to the hospital, where doctors told her she’d had an aggressive panic attack. A physician who knew her situation told her, “You really need to make a change in your life. There are some things you can’t change, but some things you can.”

Carly and her children have since moved to Maplewood, into a house adjacent to the church. She left her job as a human-resources specialist so she and at least three of their kids could see Garcia every day. Garcia’s two sons with his former girlfriend continue to visit on weekends. Garcia, Carly said, seems happier, like “he has a hop in his step.” Caleb, too, seems more settled and, for the first time, loves going to school. During church service, Carly now has to plant herself between Garcia and Caleb because they play with each other. Caleb will flick Garcia’s ear, and Garcia will pinch him back. “Everything has changed since Carly and the kids moved up here. He’s laughing,” Turner, the pastor, told me. The church has formally put Garcia in charge of maintenance, and Carly got a job too, as the operations manager for the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee of Latin America.

Their legal options are limited. Garcia’s lawyer has filed a brief with the Board of Immigration Appeals, arguing that Garcia wasn’t properly informed of where and when he needed to appear the first time he crossed the border, but the chances that they’ll prevail aren’t good. The same is true for the so-called private bill Rep. Lacy Clay, a Democrat who represents the church’s district, plans to introduce in the House. In the past, if a congressperson simply introduced such a bill on behalf of an immigrant and it was voted out of the Immigration Subcommittee, ICE would refrain from deportation. Under Trump, ICE no longer guarantees that, however. Garcia may well be living in the basement of the Church of Christ for the duration of this administration, pinning his hopes on the election of a president who’d ease the crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll to uncover why there had been such a dramatic shift of opinion in favor of gay marriage. It turned out a third of respondents said they’d changed their minds because they knew someone who was gay. Might something similar happen with immigration? If Garcia’s case is a gauge, the answer is a qualified maybe.

When I initially contacted Bruce Peterson, the first person in Poplar Bluff to meet Garcia, he didn’t know what had happened to him. After 12 years working on the Gulf Coast, Peterson had only recently returned to town. He seemed distressed and asked about Garcia’s options. I told him that probably the best scenario is that he’ll outlast the Trump administration. “Can’t we adopt him?” he asked. Peterson believes the government should secure the border, but he’s also come to think that those who are here should be given the opportunity to stay. “We have such a screwed-up system. The people who are here, especially if they have kids, they should get citizenship. There’s got to be some way for someone here that long … That little cat came here by himself. He must’ve been pretty desperate. It’s just not right.” Peterson has gone back and forth on his support for Trump. (Garcia told me, “If it wasn’t for Bruce, I wouldn’t have my family. I was going back to the train when I saw those guys.”)

On a recent afternoon, two men who had worked construction with Garcia, Corbit Barnet and Jamie Tyler, agreed to meet me during their lunch hour in an empty storefront under renovation. “It pisses me off,” said the 59-year-old Barnet, who was wearing a green hoodie and a Legendary Whitetails (the bow-and-arrow-maker) baseball cap. “I’ve argued with a couple of friends who say, ‘Well, he came here illegally, and he’s got a DWI.’ Hell, my ancestors came here illegally. And you guys don’t have no DWIs?”

“Yeah, he works hard every day to provide for his family to better himself,” Tyler, who’s 20 years younger, interrupted. “That to me is the American Dream.”

“If I would’ve been in his shoes, I would’ve done the same thing,” Barnet said. He didn’t vote in the last presidential election, but Garcia’s situation — especially the threat of separation from his family — has soured him on Trump’s immigration crackdown. “Hell, dude, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” he said as if speaking to Trump. “But breaking families apart isn’t right. I know it’s hard for the government to go through each case individually, but they got to.”

Tyler appears agitated as well. “I miss him,” he said. “I really do.”

Polasek, the Little Caesars owner, has tried to assist where he can. He gave Carly $500 to help her out in Garcia’s absence, and if she comes into the store, he pays for the pizzas. Polasek is patriotic and conservative. Outside his store, he let a Boy Scout troop place a box for discarded American flags to ensure they’re disposed of properly. He also voted for Trump, and, despite losing his job after nearly 20 years, despite his struggle to find another way to make a living, despite his love for Garcia, he said, “No wonder everyone wants to be in this country. This is such a young, beautiful, fresh country. This is paradise. I can see why Alex wants to be here.” But, he added, there are laws, and breaking them has consequences. “Rules are rules,” he said, “but I think he was an easy target.”

For some, like Polasek, there seem to be limits to connecting the personal and the political. Or maybe a story like Garcia’s seeps into you and the shape of your beliefs imperceptibly shifts over time, like the dunes along Lake Michigan on the western side of the state Polasek had to leave. He conceded he’s still trying to make sense of it, still thinking his way through. “I’m very conflicted,” he told me. “I would love to have him back in the community. You know who my friends are in Poplar Bluff? Alex and his father-in-law. It’s just the three of us. I have no other friends.”

*This article appears in the April 29, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

A Trump-Loving Town and Its Favorite Undocumented Immigrant