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730 days and counting: Lucio Perez still living in sanctuary at Amherst church

  • Lucio Perez of Guatemala, who is living in sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Amherst, teaches Spanish lessons Thursday to students Annique Boomsma, left, of Pelham and UMass senior Deborah Azer. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lucio Perez teaches Spanish to Deborah Azer, right, a UMass senior, and Annique Boomsma of Pelham, accompanied by her dog, Gracie. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lucio Perez of Guatemala, who is living in sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Amherst, teaches Spanish lessons to students Annique Boomsma, left, of Pelham and University of Massachusetts senior Deborah Azer on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lucio Perez of Guatemala, who is living in sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Amherst, talks with University of Massachusetts senior Deborah Azer during Spanish lessons he teaches on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lucio Perez of Guatemala, who is living in sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Amherst, looks over a map of Mexico with Annique Boomsma, left, of Pelham and University of Massachusetts senior Deborah Azer, during Spanish lessons he teaches on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lucio Perez of Guatemala, who is living in sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Amherst, talks about Latin American geography during Spanish lessons he teaches to student Annique Boomsma of Pelham on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lucio Perez of Guatemala, who is living in sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Amherst, talks with Annique Boomsma of Pelham during Spanish lessons he teaches on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Members of the First Congregational Church — along with other denominations — are pitching in to help Perez cope. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Saturday, October 19, 2019

AMHERST — Exactly two years ago, Lucio Perez stood on the steps of First Congregational Church to announce that he would be taking up sanctuary in the building to avoid deportation.

“I’m not a criminal,” Perez, an undocumented immigrant, said at the time to more than 150 people who had gathered for the press conference. “I’m here to confront the situation, and I hope you’ll help me pray.”

Perez is still living inside the church. He is unable to leave its walls for fear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, will deport him back to Guatemala, a country he left 20 years ago. Churches are deemed “sensitive locations” by ICE, and they seldom make arrests there, so First Congregational has become both Perez’s home and his prison — the one place where he can be sure he won’t be deported away from his wife, Dora, and their four kids in Springfield.

Two years in, Perez still wants to share his story, but he has answered reporters’ questions before. Asked Thursday how he’s doing, he responded in Spanish, “Tell me something: If you were separated from your daughter, would it be difficult?” When a Gazette photographer showed up to get a candid shot, Perez already knew what he was after. “Como una mosca en la pared,” he said — like a fly on the wall.  

“It’s very complicated to live so far away from your family,” Perez said, speaking in a makeshift classroom in the church’s basement. He had just finished giving a Spanish lesson to two community members. He said his children often ask him when he is coming home, and it breaks his heart every time. “To be separated from your family is the worst thing that can happen to somebody.” 

Perez still exudes the same unshakable faith in God he always has, quoting Scripture and saying his belief is what keeps his spirits high. His kids visit three times a week, and he said he always tells them to keep the faith and to work hard.

“In God, there is no defeat,” he said Thursday. “There’s a solution.”

But during his time at the church, Perez said he has faced anxiety, depression and fear for his family. His face has grown rounder, and he now wears a beard. He said it is sometimes hard to stay positive when the future is so unknown. He said it pains him to see his wife have to take on so many responsibilities in his absence, often having no time for herself.

“I don’t wish on anyone what I’m going through,” he said. “Not even my worst enemy.”

What now?

Perez’s lawyer, Glenn Formica, is still working to get his case reopened. A press release from the church states that Formica has appealed Perez’s case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is the next course of action when an immigrant receives an unfavorable decision from the federal Board of Immigration Appeals.

Perez said that all he can do is remain positive, hoping that the court will give him an opportunity to be reunited with his family.

“They’re also parents and humans,” he said of federal judges. “They have to see how important family is.”

As for political solutions to his situation, Perez said he hasn’t really been following the news of the U.S. presidential election too closely. He said he hopes the country elects a president who will stop separating immigrant families.

“And someone that doesn’t make false promises,” he said. “We want protections for the undocumented community in the United States so that people aren’t walking around in constant fear.”

Perez said he knows plenty of people who have been deported in recent years and added that many undocumented immigrants in the region are too scared to even go to work some days.

“For not having papers, they separate us from our families,” he said. “We haven’t come to this country to do harm. We’re here to give our families a better life.”

Margaret Sawyer, the co-director of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, pointed to several failed attempts at immigration reform in recent years in the United States, as well as to the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, an Obama administration executive order that a federal court blocked in 2015.  

Sawyer said Perez would have been eligible for reprieve under those efforts and added that Congress has not passed any sweeping immigration legislation since 1986. Sawyer also highlighted the fact that Perez received four annual stays of deportation under the Obama administration, though he was denied another stay in 2017 under the Trump administration. 

“The reason Lucio is in sanctuary is that he’s like millions of other people who came here to work, but our country hasn’t passed immigration reform that would give them legal rights to be here,”  Sawyer said. “So now that we have a political shift, he faces deportation, and thousands of people in Amherst and our region think that’s wrong and want his family to stay here because he’s part of our community.”

A large team of church and community members continue to support Perez and First Congregational each day, and Perez said he is immensely grateful for the continued help of so many people. 

A life-changing experience

The Rev. Vicki Kemper said 12 other congregations continue to provide food every week, volunteers provide Perez’s family around eight rides every week to and from Springfield, and others take shifts accompanying Perez inside the building day and night.

Kemper said that for her congregation — mostly U.S. citizens, mostly white — providing sanctuary has been a humbling learning experience. 

“It’s been a real eye-opening, really life-changing experience to walk with Lucio and his family and to get a sense of the realities they live with from day to day,” Kemper said.

There have also been logistical challenges to providing sanctuary. Kemper said the church has worked with local and state officials, hoping to resolve the fact that the church is “not in full compliance with the way some state building codes are written.” She said she would like to see a provision created for churches providing sanctuary so that they don’t have to spend a lot of money to bring their buildings up to residential code. 

“We have been working on this with the help and the support of the town officials in Amherst for almost two years now,” Kemper said.

Kemper said the church and Perez aren’t sure what the end result of sanctuary will be for him.

“We don’t know if his case will be reopened and he will be able to stay in this country and work and be with his family,” she said. But there is still value in making it possible for the family to spend more time together, she added. “We do know there’s incredible purpose and meaning in standing with someone who is having a very hard time and not turning our backs on them.” 

As for Perez, he said that, despite moments of doubt, he still has faith that his situation is only temporary. When asked what he plans to do when he eventually leaves sanctuary, his answer was simple: “Look for work and have a normal life.

First Congregational Church is holding an event at 6 p.m. Monday to mark two years since Perez entered sanctuary. Community members are encouraged to bring cookies or apple cider to share at a reception after the gathering.