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Man facing deportation finds sanctuary at Amherst church

  • Area faith leaders including, from left, Maria Pagan, pastor at First Hispanic Church of Amherst, Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, and Vanessa Cardinale, pastor at Amherst South Congregational Church, lay hands on Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, to pray with him Thursday outside of First Congregational Church of Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • More than 150 people gather Oct. 19, 2017 in front of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation. Perez is waiting for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Members of the Amherst Area Gospel Choir sing Thursday outside the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez of Springfield. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, left, speaks in Spanish Oct. 19, 2017 at the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing him sanctuary while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. Gabriella Della Croce, an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, at right, translates his words to English. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • More than 150 people gather Oct. 19, 2017 in front of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation. Perez is waiting for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Russ Vernon-Jones, moderator of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, left, and Gabriella Della Croce, Diana Sierra and Rose Bookbinder of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center solemnly look during prayers for Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, Oct. 19, 2017. The First Congregational Church of Amherst is providing sanctuary to Perez while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, left, looks on as various area faith leaders including Vanessa Cardinale, pastor at Amherst South Congregational Church, lay hands on him to pray Oct. 19, 2017 outside of First Congregational Church of Amherst. The church is providing sanctuary to Perez while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Margaret Sawyer, Pioneer Valley Workers Center organizer, speaks Oct. 19, 2017 on the First Congregational Church of Amherst providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation. Perez is waiting for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A sign of support for Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, is displayed Oct. 19, 2017 during a gathering of more than 150 people front of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing sanctuary to Perez while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, speaks in Spanish Oct. 19, 2017 at the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing him sanctuary while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, center, speaks Oct. 19, 2017 on the church providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation. Perez is waiting for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Russ Vernon-Jones, moderator of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, speaks Oct. 19, 2017 on the church providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation. Perez is waiting for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, center, speaks Oct. 19, 2017 on the church providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation. Perez is waiting for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. Various area faith leaders look on, at back. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maria Pagan, pastor at First Hispanic Church of Amherst, left, hugs Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, Oct. 19, 2017 outside of First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing him sanctuary while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. Vanessa Cardinale, pastor at Amherst South Congregational Church, right, looks on. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, front left, speaks in Spanish Oct. 19, 2017 at the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing him sanctuary while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal. Gabriella Della Croce, an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, at right, translates his words to English. Various area faith leaders stand in solidarity with Perez, at back. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Rose Bookbinder of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center displays photographs of Lucio Perez of Springfield, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, Oct. 19, 2017 outside of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which is providing sanctuary to Perez while he waits for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals after Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal.



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2017

AMHERST — Standing on the steps of the downtown Amherst church he now calls home, Lucio Perez on Thursday afternoon asked the community to provide him strength as he continues to face the possibility that he will be deported and separated from his wife and children.

“I’m not a criminal,” Perez said, speaking through an interpreter to the more than 150 people who gathered for a press conference in front of the First Congregational Church of Amherst. “I’m here to confront the situation and I hope you’ll help me pray.”

The church, at 165 Main St., will provide Perez, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Springfield, sanctuary for as long as necessary to ensure that he is not forced to return to his home country of Guatemala, from which he fled nearly 20 years ago.

Perez sought sanctuary at the church Wednesday evening, hours before he was supposed to be in New York and boarding a plane back to Guatemala after Immigrations and Customs Enforcement denied his stay of removal.

“It’s been very difficult for me, everything that has been happening,” Perez said, adding that as a landscaper he “works hard to give a better future for my children,” three of whom are U.S. citizens.

The Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor of the church, said providing sanctuary to Perez was first considered during a church meeting Sept. 13, but she and others at the church had hoped his situation would successfully be resolved before they had to take this step.

“None of us wanted to be here today. None of us wanted this day to come,” Kemper said.

In fact, she said, the church always plays by the rules, with members attending vigils in support of immigrants, trainings to protect neighbors and praying for the well-being of others.

Similarly, Kemper said Perez also played by the rules, rather than fleeing and going into hiding. Instead, he agreed to regular check-ins with ICE, as he has since 2009, when police West Hartford, Connecticut, charged him with child abandonment when he briefly entered a Dunkin’ Donuts, leaving his children in the car, and has worn an ankle bracelet for the past month.

In September, ICE officials ordered Perez to leave by Thursday, forcing him to buy a plane ticket for that date. That was also when they fitted him with the bracelet to monitor his location.

“This is not an action we take lightly, but at the same time it’s an action we feel we must take,” Kemper said, referencing Scripture’s call to love strangers.

In June, the congregation voted to become a community that welcomes immigrants.

“The longer it went along it seemed Lucio had no other options,” Kemper said.

Welcoming community

Amherst Town Meeting adopted the Sanctuary Community Bylaw in May, aimed at offering protections to undocumented immigrants, and prohibiting employees from participating in, and municipal money from being used toward, the establishment of a Muslim registry.

That sentiment gives Kemper confidence that Amherst police and officials will not hinder the sanctuary effort.

A meeting room in the church has been transformed into a bedroom, featuring a sitting area, microwave and small refrigerator, and Kemper said people will be in the building with Perez around the clock, coordinating food and ensuring he gets the resources he needs.

Rose Bookbinder, organizer for the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, said the church could be Perez’s home for the next six to eight months, depending on how soon his appeal goes before the Board of Immigration Appeals. In addition to his room in the church, Perez will have access to the building’s front lawn, but he will not leave the property, Kemper said.

ICE responds

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said in an email that his department has protocols in place should ICE make any requests for assistance. None has been made, he said.

Shawn Neudauer, spokesman for the New England region for the Department of Homeland Security, said Perez is now considered a fugitive, and subject to arrest, after a final order of removal was issued by a federal immigration judge in 2011.

“Mr. Perez has numerous convictions for misdemeanor offenses,” Neudauer said. “In exercise of discretion, ICE allowed him to remain free from custody while finalizing his departure arrangements.”

Except in unusual circumstances, he said, current ICE policy directs personnel to avoid enforcement activities at sensitive locations, including churches, schools and hospitals

“If arrested, ICE will then carry out his removal from the United States, per the court’s order,” Neudauer said.

Risks and rewards

The workers center and other groups have already worked for months to resolve Perez’s case. On Monday, people gathered outside the Springfield Department of Homeland Security to protest Perez’s deportation, leading to 18 arrests.

On Thursday Kemper was joined by nearly 20 other leaders of faith communities from the Amherst area. At one point, many of them put their hands on Perez and prayed for his well-being.

Providing sanctuary to Perez shows the church’s commitment to respect for all humans and the meaning of Christianity, said Russ Vernon-Jones, the elected moderator for the church.

“Our congregation has decided in this time and place it means opening our doors, opening our arms and opening our hearts, to Lucio Perez,” Vernon-Jones said.

Vernon-Jones said Perez is a gentle and warm person. “He is a blessing to all of us,” he said.

But the offer of sanctuary comes with risks. “It is truly a leap into the unknown,” Vernon-Jones said.

Kemper said there has been some criticism on social media about the decision, and that not everyone in the region will be as supportive as many in Amherst have been.

The congregation, though, has overwhelmingly endorsed the position.

“I have not heard anyone say we shouldn’t be doing this,” Kemper said.

The pastor also said she doesn’t fear ICE raiding the property, noting that all activities at the church, including the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen and the Spring Street preschool, will be unaffected.

“We hope this can continue to be a peaceful place in town,” Kemper said.

Margaret Sawyer, an ordained minister and organizer with the workers center, said sanctuary will fight a system targeting innocent fathers and mothers.

“We ask for God’s blessings on this profound act of witness,” Sawyer said.

Diana Sierra, an organizer with the workers center who herself is an immigrant, said Perez has made a “brave and historic” decision, and that the church is undertaking a moral obligation to defend neighbors and not allow the “deportment apparatus” to continue with what she termed ethnic cleansing and instilling fear.

“Free Lucio,” Sierra said.

Prior to the speakers taking the stage, there was a performance by the Amherst Area Gospel Choir, which led the crowd in renditions of “Freedom is Coming” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Among those observing were Amherst resident Elaine Kenseth, the daughter of the late Rev. Arnold Kenseth, the longtime pastor at South Congregational Church.

Kenseth said she was pleased to see the First Church of Amherst provide sanctuary, making her proud to call Amherst home.

Mary Lou Conca of Shutesbury said she was inspired by the calls for help that could include financial and food donations.

“I think I’ll start cooking for him,” Conca said.

Officials stand with church

Congressman Jim McGovern said he supports the church’s decision. Speaking after the event, he said he appreciates what the church is doing and that housing Perez will be a true test for the contemporary sanctuary movement.

“The idea that you would separate a father from his three kids and disrupt an entire family is just wrong,” McGovern said.

The Worcester Democrat, whose district includes Amherst, made a call to the Department of Homeland Security office in Hartford on Perez’s behalf, and an aide spoke to ICE congressional liaisons, but hasn’t seen any movement in his favor.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Perez’s case is not unique,” McGovern said. “Good people are being caught up by Trump’s emphasis to deport everybody.”

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said the need to provide sanctuary shows a failure of the federal immigration system and how lack of action by Congress splits families apart.

“This case also shows the kindness and understanding of the people of the Pioneer Valley toward our fellow residents in their time of need,” Rosenberg said.

State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose said in a statement that Perez has contributed to the community for decades.

“Targeting law-abiding citizens for deportation should not be a priority,” Goldstein-Rose said. “The Trump administration is wasting federal money that should be spent preventing serious crime or on other federal programs.”

The sanctuary effort is believed to be the first in western Massachusetts for a person who entered the United States illegally, at least in recent years.

In 1985, Mount Toby Meeting of Friends in Leverett brought in two refugees from Guatemala, Pedro and Joaquin Vasquez, following a 3,000-mile trek from Phoenix. More than 200 Quakers in the region clothed, fed and sheltered them during their stay.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com