Supporters celebrate Lucio Perez leaving sanctuary after 3½ years

  • Lucio Perez waves to the crowd with his family gathered behind him in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dora Perez talks to the crowd in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to her husband Lucio Perez's sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • ">

    Lucio Perez gives "hugs" to members of the crowd gathered in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez waves to the crowd gathered in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez gives an elbow bump to Manuel E. Pintado at the conclusion of the celebration honoring the end of Perez's sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez talks to the crowd with his family gathered behind him in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez talks to the crowd in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tony Perez, Lucio and Dora's son, talks to the crowd in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of Lucio's end to sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez sits with members of his family and waves to the crowd gathered in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez talks to the crowd with his family gathered behind him in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ed Staneh rings the bells at First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to Lucio Perez's sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez's family listens as Lucio talks to the crowd in front of First Church Amherst in celebration of the end to his sanctuary on Saturday, March 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/13/2021 5:51:50 PM

AMHERST — After three and a half years, Lucio Perez can leave the First Congregational Church without the risk that he will be deported.  

Perez, a Guatemalan immigrant, began living in the church in October 2017 after a stay of his deportation was denied under the Trump Administration. 

“It wasn't easy … I never thought it would be so many years," he said Saturday, speaking with the Gazette through a translator. 

Earlier this month, Perez was granted a stay of his deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“This is what it looks like when love wins,” First Church Rev. Vicki Kemper said to a crowd that gathered in front of the church to celebrate Perez being able to leave. 

Kemper choked up as she introduced Perez, calling him “the man who has shown us what faith is, what strength is, what courage is, what love for family is. And today he shows us what freedom is.” The crowd clapped.

“There really aren’t words for all the things that you all have done for me and my family," Perez said to the crowd in Spanish with an English translator.

He thanked the church, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, and others who supported him in his stay. People volunteered to sleep at the church and made sure he was never alone and drove his family from Springfield to Amherst for regular visits, Kemper said. Members from more than a dozen faith communities brought Perez food on a regular schedule, she said.

Perez’s wife, Dora Perez, told the crowd in Spanish with an English translator that there are other families in similar situations. “I want to tell them there is hope,” she said. “I hope we keep the pressure on so other families can experience freedom like my family.”

Lucio Perez had a similar message for those currently in sanctuary. “Their day will come. We will find freedom.”

Perez came to the U.S. in 1999 and worked in a factory in Delaware before moving to Springfield.

In 2009, he and Dora Perez went into a West Hartford Dunkin’ Donuts while their kids were in the car, he recalled in a 2018 Gazette interview. When they came out, police surrounded the car, and he was charged with child abandonment. Those charges were dropped, his lawyer said in 2018, but he was on ICE’s radar. 

“It’s very hard to live in this country without papers,” he told the Gazette in a 2018.

The government granted him stays of deportation during the Obama administration. “Obama was able to renew the stays of deportation year after year,” he said Saturday. 

But during Perez’s first annual check-in after Donald Trump’s election, he was ordered to leave the country. “It became so difficult when the new president came into office," he said. He bought a plane ticket home, “but I thought that wasn’t the solution," he said. “I didn't want to be far from my family.”

Places like churches are considered “sensitive locations” by ICE and they rarely make arrests there.

When the Workers Center approached the church, “We didn't know what it meant to provide sanctuary and we didn't know how long it would last,” Kemper told the crowd. But they worked with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and countless volunteers, she said.

“We really didn't know this day would come,” Rev. Margaret Sawyer, co-director of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, told the crowd. She recalled a time two years ago when Perez texted her saying “I lost my case”— his appeal had failed. “I just didn't know what to do," Sawyer said. “We’re going to keep going. We’re going to pray,” she recalled Perez saying. “To me,” she said, “that's what the lesson here is. We keep going.”

After Perez and others spoke, people were able to ring the church bell to celebrate.

Perez’s family, including his four children, gathered at the church for the celebration. “My dad can finally come home,” Tony Perez, Lucio Perez’s 18-year-old son, told the Gazette.

“It was hard. I pray to God no one else goes through this," Tony Perez said. “Nobody should be separated from their family, ever.” He found support in the community that helped his family, he said. He recalled visiting the church three times a week, with volunteers driving him and his siblings 45 minutes each way. 

“Thank you all for never leaving our side," Tony Perez told the crowd. “We love everybody here.”

Now, Tony Perez is looking forward to spending time with his dad — going hiking and going to the park to play soccer and basketball. “We have a lot to catch up on,” he said.

His dad will also be able to see him gradate from Springfield Central High School this spring. 

Dora Perez said she often wondered, “when will this end” she told the crowd. “It was God’s day today.”

In his three and a half years living in the church, Perez spent time praying, talking with visitors, working in the kitchen, and teaching Spanish. 

He tried to stay busy, but he would often think of his family. “It really wasn't easy,” he said.

Perez said that he’s working with his lawyer on the next steps to secure his future in the U.S., as the stay of deportation is for a year. 

“I’m just going to keep strong, keep fighting,” he said, later adding, “My lawyer is fighting hard for me.”  

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy