Supporters, officials escort immigrant Lucio Perez from hospital to church

  • Russ Vernon-Jones, moderator of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, and Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, leads Lucio Perez back into the church after a stay in Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a medical emergency. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucio Perez hugs Milta Franco after arriving back to back to the First Congregational Church of Amherst, after a stay in Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a medical emergency. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, leads Lucio Perez back into the church after a stay in Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a medical emergency. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • 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. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Above, Beth Eagleson greets Lucio Perez after he arrived back at the First Congregational Church of Amherst, Thursday, after a stay in Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a medical emergency. Standing with flowers is his wife, Dora. Top left, supporters wave and hold flowers as the Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, drives Perez from Cooley Dickinson, accompanied by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and the Rev. Peter Ives. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS PHOTOS

  • Lucio Perez greets friends at the First Congregational Church of Amherst, Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, drives Lucio Perez from Cooley Dickinson to Amherst accompanied by David Narkewicz and Peter Ives. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, leads Lucio Perez back into the church after a stay in Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a medical emergency. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, drives Lucio Perez from Cooley Dickinson to Amherst accompanied by David Narkewicz and Peter Ives. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 5/17/2018 5:37:32 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Guatemalan immigrant Lucio Perez and his supporters feared this week that Perez might be in imminent danger of deportation.

Perez was rushed to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in an ambulance on Monday with appendicitis, leaving the walls of his sanctuary in Amherst’s First Congregational Church for the first time since he began living there seven months ago to avoid deportation.

And while federal immigration agents consider churches and hospitals “sensitive locations,” Perez had to drive back to Amherst from Northampton when he was released Tuesday — a journey that opened him up to the risk of being detained.

To assist his return to Amherst, more than two dozen people — local religious leaders, politicians, activists and concerned supporters — turned up at the hospital on Thursday to form a caravan of support for Perez, who rode in a car with the Rev. Vicki Kemper of First Congregational, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and the Rev. Peter Ives of Northampton.

“These past few days have been very sad for me,” Perez said after returning safely to sanctuary. “But in this moment I feel so happy to have so many people around me.”

The congregation greeted Perez on the church’s front steps with guitar playing and a rendition of the Spanish-language hymn “Let’s Give Thanks to the Lord” as Perez’s wife, Dora, filmed the moment on her cellphone, a relieved smile across her face.

That happiness was the culmination of days of worry after Perez made the decision to leave sanctuary for life-saving treatment. 

Perez said that the battery on an electronic monitoring bracelet he has to wear was getting low, and that he received a call from immigration agents after leaving the church. He didn’t answer the call, he added, because he was in the middle of a medical emergency.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s New England spokesman John Mohan did not immediately respond to an email and voicemail message on Thursday afternoon.

Cooley Dickinson Hospital does not comment on individual patients because of privacy laws. But in a statement, a hospital spokeswoman said Cooley Dickinson welcomes and treats all patients, regardless of their immigration status.

“Cooley Dickinson has not, and will not, provide immigration authorities information regarding our patients unless compelled by law,” the statement reads. “Patients should know that Cooley will do all it can to ensure that all of its patients’ rights of confidentiality and privacy are preserved consistent with the law and good patient care.”

More than two dozen supporters gathered at the hospital at noon on Thursday to greet Perez with flowers and cheers. They then all rushed to their respective cars, trying their best to keep together as a caravan through traffic lights and traffic jams as Perez traveled down Route 9 to the church.

Diana Sierra, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, was one of the activists coordinating Perez’s journey. She said the effort required the participation of dozens of people — from hospital staff to local political figures — just to make sure Perez could receive quality health care.

“It just shows the complete inhumanness of our immigration system,” she said of the enormous undertaking of ensuring Perez’s safe passage. “Just to be able to transport one man a short distance… the mobility of people of color is constantly policed, and it has real life-and-death consequences.”

“But we did it!” Sierra said, adding that she hopes his safe passage to and from the hospital sets a precedent for immigration officials. Sierra and others at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center believe Perez is the first immigrant living in sanctuary with an ankle monitor to successfully travel to a hospital to receive medical treatment.

“His ability to receive life-saving medical care sets an important human rights precedence for other immigrants living in sanctuary,” a statement from the Workers Center reads.

One of the many supporters who turned out for Perez’s arrival was Edwin Murenzi, a doctoral student in molecular and cell biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a visa-holding student from Rwanda, Murenzi said he understands and sympathizes with the perils of being undocumented.

“No one should have to live under that pressure, under that uncertainty,” he said.

Kemper, the church’s pastor, said that as welcome as Perez is at First Congregational, they don’t want him to have to be there.

“We want him to be home,” she told the gathered crowd. “In his own home.”

Narkewicz, who accompanied Perez in the car to Amherst, said he put himself in that position because he wants to support faith-based communities offering sanctuary in the region — including the Unitarian Society in Northampton, which is also providing sanctuary to a local undocumented immigrant. 

Despite the high stakes, however, Narkewicz said the car ride wasn’t all that tense.

“We talked and mainly wanted to make sure Mr. Perez was feeling OK,” Narkewicz said. “Normal Route 9 traffic.”

“I don’t have fear,” Perez later told reporters, sitting down on a chair in exhaustion. “I feel like I’m not a dangerous person in this country.”

Perez thanked his supporters for their constant help, accompanying him during every minute he was in the hospital. But although Perez got back safely, he still faces indefinite confinement in the church in order to avoid separation from his wife and four children, who live in Springfield. 

“They’re really depressed,” he said of his children’s fear that their father will be deported back to a country he left almost 20 years ago. “They don’t want to go to school.”

“I hope they will give me another opportunity to stay with my family,” Perez said. “Being separated from your family is terrible.”

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


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