Springfield man taking sanctuary in Amherst church to avoid deportation

Perez came to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago

AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – A Guatemalan native, and longtime Springfield resident, was scheduled to be deported Thursday, but instead has taken sanctuary at a church in Amherst.

“No matter who you are you are welcome here,” the sign reads outside the First Congregational Church in Amherst.

The church has transformed a meeting room into a bedroom for 35-year-old Lucio Perez. He’s been staying there since Wednesday night, and leaders of the church say he is free to stay there until his case is settled. His lawyers have filed a motion to reopen his original case for cancellation of deportation.

“Amherst is a melting pot town,” said Sana Ndiaye, an immigrant from Senegal living in Amherst. “It’s not only this situation happened to him. It happened to many people, people who have kids here that have grown up here and then suddenly they want to deport their parents and leave the kids here. It doesn’t really make any sense.”

Amherst church providing sanctuary to Guatemalan man facing deportation

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer told 22News their agency has a “sensitive locations” policy that prohibits enforcement at places like churches, schools and hospitals.

In a news release sent to 22News by the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, Perez said he is appreciative of the opportunity the church has given him to stay with his family.

“I am so thankful to First Congregational Church of Amherst for opening the doors to me,” Perez said. “I am grateful for the support of the community and my family. Together we are strong.”

Perez is a landscaper and a married father of three U.S. citizens who attend Springfield Public Schools.  According to the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, Perez had a temporary work authorization that ran out in July of this year. They maintain he’s eligible for a special pardon to receive a green card because he has a family here.

In an effort to keep his family together, Perez entered the church Wednesday night. 22News asked a neighbor what she thinks about having this situation so close to home.

“I welcome that and I’m privileged to live up the street from a church that would do that,” said Peggy Schwartz of Amherst. “I’m so opposed to this stop and deport policy.”

Perez came to America nearly 20 years ago and according to the release sent to 22News by the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, has no criminal record. The Pioneer Valley Workers Center said in the release he had been required to check in annually with immigration officials after immigration authorities were alerted to his presence in the U.S. in 2009.  That was when West Hartford, Connecticut, police alleged that he had abandoned his children when he went inside a Dunkin Donuts.

ICE released a statement to 22News on Thursday, describing Perez’s deportation situation.

“Lucio Enrique Perez-Ortiz, from Guatemala, was issued a final order of removal by a federal immigration judge in 2011,” Shawn Neudauer, Public Affairs Officer at DHS/ICE told 22News. “Mr. Perez has numerous convictions for misdemeanor offenses. In exercise of discretion, ICE allowed him to remain free from custody while finalizing his departure arrangements.”

Eighteen people were arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespassing after they blocked the doors to the old Federal Building, protesting Perez’s deportation order on Monday.

“Since Mr. Perez has failed to comply with the judge’s order to leave the U.S., he is now an ICE fugitive, and is subject to arrest when encountered,” Neudauer added. “If arrested, ICE will then carry out his removal from the United States, per the court’s order.”

Perez was forced to wear an electronic ankle monitor until his scheduled flight to Guatemala Thursday.

“Current ICE policy directs agency personnel to avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances,” Neudauer stated. “The locations specified in the guidance include schools, places of worship, and hospitals.”

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