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Northampton Unitarians take in Russian woman facing deportation

  • Margaret Sawyer, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and a pastor with the United Church of Christ, at center, speaks April 10, 2018 during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. Faith-based leaders and community organizers listen around her, at back. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lily Haung, co-executive director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, left, speaks alongside community organizer Alicia Fleming April 10, 2018 during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Margaret Sawyer, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and a pastor with the United Church of Christ, speaks April 10, 2018 during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Rose Bookbinder of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center speaks April 10, 2018 during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The Rev. Janet Bush of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence speaks Tuesday during a press conference at the society, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. Rose Bookbinder of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center looks on, at left. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Immigration attorney Lauren Burke speaks April 10, 2018 during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Margaret Sawyer, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and a pastor with the United Church of Christ, speaks Tuesday during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. Javier Luengo-Garrido, Immigrant Protection Project coordinator for the ACLU, left, and immigration attorney Lauren Burke look on. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Laurie Loisel, president of the congregation at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, speaks April 10, 2018 during a press conference at USNF, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. ACLU Immigrant Protection Project Coordinator Javier Luengo-Garrido looks on, at right. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Javier Luengo-Garrido, Immigrant Protection Project Coordinator for the ACLU, speaks April 10, 2018 during a press conference at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, which is providing Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova sanctuary from deportation. Rose Bookbinder of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center looks on, at left. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@dustyc123
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — When Russian-born immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova took sanctuary at a local church Friday to avoid deportation, she said it was the first night in a long time that she has been able to sleep comfortably.

“My son is old enough to understand. He has been my rock, same as my husband,” she told reporters Tuesday inside the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.

“They think it it is the best decision that I could have made, so I had one more chance to fight my case from somewhere where I am safe and I don’t have to worry about my doors being kicked in or anything of the sort.”

The wife of a U.S. citizen and mother of three citizen children — a 10-year-old son and 4-year-old twin girls — is the latest local immigrant to seek sanctuary in one of the region’s churches. She joins Guatemalan immigrant Lucio Perez, who has lived at First Congregational Church in Amherst since October, and Gisella Collazo, a Peruvian woman who has been in Springfield’s South Congregational United Church of Christ since March 26.

Kakhtiranova, 36, a restaurant worker, said she came to this country from the Ural Mountain region of Russia 15 years ago, and fears persecution if sent back. She lived initially in Florida, and has lived in western Massachusetts since 2009.

“I feel very much a part of the community where I live and very much an American despite my resident status,” Kakhtiranova said in perfect, nearly accentless English. “I’ve built a life here with the help of my husband and his family in a country I’ve come to love and feel is my only true home. I could not picture it otherwise.”

She declined, however, to provide any more details about her decision to depart Russia, or how she ended up on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“The ‘adjustment of status’ application has 76 little boxes that someone must check in order for them to stay permanently in this country,” local immigration lawyer Lauren Burke said at a press conference Tuesday. “And because of Irida’s past interactions with immigration — and which have nothing to do, I want to make clear, with any sort of criminal record — she wasn’t able to check every box.”

‘Complicated waters’

Burke, who advises the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, said Kakhtiranova’s supporters are currently working to find her a permanent lawyer, and for that reason declined to go into the specifics about her case.

“But here is what I can say: Irida fled Russia in 2003 because she was not able to live openly and freely in the country where she was born, and where she was living with and was in love with a woman,” Burke said.

“It is the extreme exception that any immigrant is able on their own to navigate the unbelievably complicated waters that make up our immigration system,” Burke continued. “And these complications have led to the situation where we are today, where she is unable to currently adjust her status based upon that marriage.”

Burke declined to elaborate on other aspects of Kakhtiranova’s case or personal situation.

ICE also declined to discuss specifics of Kakhtiranova’s case, saying only that an immigration judge ordered her removal in 2007, and that she was given the option to voluntarily depart the country.

“Ms. Kakhtiranova subsequently violated the terms of this agreement by failing to depart the United States,” ICE public affairs officer John Mohan said in a statement. “As a result (of) her noncompliance, she is now considered an ICE fugitive.”

Burke said Kakhtiranova has been granted stays of removal every single year since the removal order was issued against her. Under the administration of President Donald Trump, however, she was denied that yearly reprise in early 2017.

This month, Kakhtiranova was ordered to appear at an ICE office with her passport in hand or risk arrest, according to Burke.

“So she took sanctuary instead,” Burke said. “And what mother wouldn’t?”

Welcome, hope

Providing her that sanctuary will be the Unitarian Society, together with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, as well as a large local contingent of activists, religious congregations and volunteers.

The Rev. Janet Bush said the congregation decided to provide sanctuary in solidarity with Kakhtiranova and other immigrants “who are victims of a broken and cruel immigration system.” She spoke about the legacy of Unitarian Universalists’ activism in the civil rights movement, in protests against the Vietnam War and in the push for LGBT equality.

“Ours is a faith tradition that requires us to side with justice, equality and compassion in human relations,” she said Tuesday. “It is a faith tradition that honors the biblical prophets who sided with the poor, and that honors Jesus’ radical teachings on behalf of the oppressed. It is a faith tradition that offers welcome and offers hope.”

The Unitarian Society began exploring the possibility of becoming a sanctuary congregation in September, according to congregation president Laurie Loisel. After a deliberative process, in December members voted overwhelmingly in favor of offering physical sanctuary.

Other local places of worship have taken similar steps, explored the possibility of providing sanctuary or have voted to provide support to those who do decide to offer physical sanctuary.

Current ICE policy directs agents to avoid conducting “enforcement activities” at places defined as “sensitive locations,” such as places of worship, schools and hospitals.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz voiced his support for the Unitarian Society’s right to offer Kakhtiranova sanctuary, saying in a statement that he provided the church with guidance last fall when it voted to become a “sanctuary congregation.” That included putting the church in touch with city departments to make sure they were in compliance with health and safety codes.

“I continue to call upon President Trump to end his hateful and divisive immigration policies that run counter to our proud history as a nation founded and built by immigrants,” Narkewicz said in a statement.

Contrasting approaches

Narkewicz also issued an executive order in 2014 that makes Northampton a “sanctuary city” that limits police cooperation with ICE in enforcing federal immigration policies.

That approach stands in sharp contrast with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s recent actions after Gisella Collazo took sanctuary in South Congregational United Church of Christ. Sarno, who has fiercely opposed sanctuary city efforts in Springfield, ordered the church inspected for “illegal housing” and directed city officials to strip the church of its tax-exempt status.

Sarno’s effort to evict the family has been unsuccessful. And, on Monday, the City Council cast a unanimous vote to prohibit city officials from interfering with religious freedoms at places of worship.

In Amherst, local officials have responded positively to Lucio Perez taking sanctuary at First Congregational Church. Amherst has also implemented “sanctuary community” policies, and officials made sure First Congregational was up to code before the church provided Perez sanctuary.

“Taking sanctuary is not an easy decision but with the community we have here to support us, it is a far better way to be in this fight than to do it when you are far away from your family and your children,” Perez said in a statement on Tuesday. “I want Irida to know that she needs to embrace faith and hope.”

Kakhtiranova said she hasn’t yet spoken to Perez. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, she fought back tears when asked how she and her family are doing. “We’re OK,” she said.

“It’s just been a rough week, and when I did get in here the first two days I pretty much just slept and rested,” Kakhtiranova said. “I finally stopped looking at the door and window in fear, without shaking.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.