People in sanctuary press Biden for change

  • Lucio Perez greets friends after arriving back into the First Congregational Church of Amherst, after a stay in Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a medical emergency in May 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Irida Kakhtiranova makes a blueberry pie Wednesday, May 9, 2018 in the kitchen of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. She is a Russian immigrant facing deportation and was given sanctuary at USNF on April 6, 2018. She is the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of three American-born children. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/26/2021 4:36:20 PM

After close to three years living in sanctuary to prevent her deportation, a woman provided refuge in a Northampton church is calling on President Joe Biden to adopt policies that will ensure that she and others can remain in the United States.

“I think we have a strong chance with his administration because he already has an idea for a pathway to citizenship for people like us,” Irida Kakhtiranova said during a National Sanctuary Collective press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I believe we have a strong chance — we just need attention on us.”

Originally from Russia, Kakhtiranova, who entered the Unitarian Society-Northampton Florence in April 2018, was one of several undocumented immigrants across the country who used the opportunity to appeal to Biden to cancel deportations, provide a way to become American citizens and find a permanent solution to their plight.

If Biden signs a stay of removal and provides a pathway to citizenship, and prohibits Immigration and Customs Enforcement from carrying out deportations, Kakhtiranova said she would be confident ending her sanctuary.

“I do not wish this on anybody, what we are living,” said Lucio Perez through an interpreter. “They don’t have the slightest idea what we are living.”

Perez, a Guatemalan who first entered First Congregational Church of Amherst in October 2017, said he doesn’t want just promises from Biden, but actions.

“We don’t want just false words because it has been so difficult for us,” Perez said.

The two Hampshire County individuals in sanctuary were joined by several other sanctuary leaders from across the country, including Rosa Sabido, in Mancos, Colorado, who has already spoken to the Biden administration.

“We urge them to consider stays of removal and freedom from persecution,” Sabido said.

The sanctuary leaders have been joined by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Reps. Joaquín Castro, Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush in demanding they be liberated and made a priority for relief under the new presidential administration.

Margaret Sawyer, co-director of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, said her organization has been involved in advocacy for Perez and Kakhtiranova through the collective. In addition, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern filed legislative bills on their behalf.

Sawyer said both local sanctuary leaders have been remarkable.

“It’s a humbling experience for them to take this public stance to keep their families together,” Sawyer said.

The systems in place to assist those in sanctuary depend on a significant number of volunteers, Sawyer said, and many changes and precautions have been necessary during the pandemic. Those have worked, she said.

“They’re both doing well and both are healthy,” Sawyer said.

At the height of the Trump administration, those in sanctuary had numbered around 100, but that number has dropped to about 50.

Sabido said she would like to see a response soon from Biden, since the president has already pledged to offer citizenship to 11 million people and stop construction of the border wall.

“Hopefully, we’ll hear from them soon,” Sabido said.

Kakhtiranova added that the quarantine people may have experienced during COVID-19 is nothing like the experience she has had.

“I chose sanctuary because I believe in justice and I deserve a fighting chance,” said Kakhtiranova, who has three American-born children and a husband who is an American citizen.

“I love this country and I call it my home,” Kakhtiranova said.

Perez said he is grateful for the community support since Oct. 18, 2017.

“If sanctuary didn’t exist, our family would be destroyed or separated,” Perez said.

Perez said he came to the United States 20 years ago to work hard for his family, including his four children.

COVID-19 has been a challenge, he said. “We are still here moving forward,” Perez said.

“We just want to be able to walk outside without fear, to walk in a park and enjoy the beauty God has given us, and to enjoy our family,” Perez said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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