Amherst church is now his home

Immigrants seek sanctuary in churches to avoid deportation

ON THE VERGE of being deported last summer, Lucio Perez took sanctuary in the First Congregational Church in Amherst. He hasn’t left since.

Perez is one of three people in Massachusetts and 20 nationwide who have sought sanctuary in churches to avoid being deported. First Church is one of roughly 1,100 churches across the country that offer sanctuary to people facing deportation.

The sanctuary movement hinges on a policy drafted in the Obama administration that recognizes places of worship, hospitals, schools, and courtrooms as “sensitive locations,” and prohibits Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials from seeking or detaining people there. All these restrictions could change at any moment.

Lucio Perez sought sanctuary in an Amherst church.

“It’s not a law, it’s a policy and we’ve already seen erosion of that policy under Trump,” says Myrna Orozco, a spokeswoman for Church World Service, an interfaith organization that has spearheaded the sanctuary movement nationwide. In the original policy, Orozco says, courtrooms were considered safe spaces, “Now we’re seeing ICE going into the courts looking for people,” she says. So far, ICE officials have respected the boundaries of churches, temples, and mosques.

Perez ended up at First Church after walking into his regularly scheduled meeting with immigration officials last summer. He was told to pack up, put his affairs in order, and say goodbye to his family and friends. He was booked on a one-way flight to Guatemala, his home country, in October.  He knew that sanctuary was an option through his volunteer work as an advocate for undocumented immigrants, so, on the eve of his scheduled deportation, he moved his belongings into a room at the church.

Though he has been able to stay in the country by living at First Church, his life has been turned upside down. He had to give up his job at a local landscaping company. His wife and three children make several trips up to see him each week, but Perez misses being part of their daily lives. “It would have been ideal to go into sanctuary closer to home, but this church was open to me and I had to make some quick decisions,” he says through an interpreter.

His room in the church is spacious but simply furnished. A bed and desk nestle against the wall on one side of the room. A photo of him standing with US Sen. Edward Markey, who visited him earlier this year, sits on top of a dresser on the other side. A guitar provides a welcome diversion, and an exercise bicycle helps him maintain the fitness he achieved through physical, outdoor work at a landscaping company. Perez has access to the church kitchen, but cooks simple meals in his room. Pantry items line shelves behind a small microwave.

Aside from his family, the only people who have come looking for Perez at First Church have been community supporters, journalists, and the occasional politician. Visits are coordinated through the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, the Northampton-based non-profit organization advocating on his behalf. Volunteers drive family members up from Springfield, making as many as 10 trips a week.

Monthly community potluck dinners at the church help lift his spirits. Andrea Schmid, an organizer at the Workers Center, says the events are also intended to build community support for Perez’s cause. “The idea is to show that he is part of our community,” she says. “If he is deported, you’ve taken out someone who is part of this community. It’s a loss for his family and for all of us.”

Perez entered the US illegally 20 years ago. “When I was growing up, we lived in fear,” he says. In addition to gang violence, which was commonplace, Perez says government officials came around in trucks to round up young men, ostensibly for military service. “My father would tell me, ‘Don’t go outside, it’s so dangerous, I don’t want you to get rounded up.’”

At 17, Perez made his way to the US border and hired a “coyote” to help him cross into Arizona. After being robbed and assaulted several times on his journey, Perez made his way to Delaware where his sister lives. His wife, who he married in Guatemala, followed him a few years later. Eventually, they moved to Springfield and started a family. He had hoped to reconnect with his father as well, but local hoodlums, who knew he had a son sending him money from America, robbed and beat him. After years of suffering and disability, his father passed away before Perez saw him again.

Rose Bookbinder, who directs the Workers Center, says the group is trying to raise the profile of Perez’s case in order to influence officials to grant him a “stay of removal,” with the rationale that he is raising a family in Massachusetts and has been a productive member of society here. Bookbinder says the center has reached out to Markey, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. James McGovern for help.

Orozco says that the sanctuary movement has burgeoned over the past year to shelter people like Perez who may be forced to return to countries where their welfare is in danger. The number of churches, temples, and mosques stepping forward as sanctuaries has nearly tripled since Trump’s inauguration. Despite thousands of deportations, however, few people have opted for the isolation and confinement of living in a church.

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The sudden loss of Perez’s income has been problematic for his family. He keeps in contact with his employer by phone and hopes to return to the job if he is allowed to stay in the country. In the meantime, church and community supporters cover his expenses. Any additional money raised is given to his wife and children. The Workers Center organizes a Spanish class that Perez teaches in the church as an alternative income source, but so far that hasn’t supplanted what he earned as a landscaper.

While he waits for news about his case, Perez looks forward to visits from his family and works with organizers from the Workers Center to publicize his plight. “I am working not just for myself, but for other people in similar situations,” he says.