In Sanctuary To Avoid Deportation, Immigrant Needs Emergency Appendix Surgery

May 17, 2018

What happens when an immigrant facing deportation seeks sanctuary in a church, but then needs to leave to get surgery? That happened in western Massachusetts this week. 

On Thursday, community leaders, activists and members of the clergy stood outside Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton to support Lucio Perez. He's a 37-year-old father of four, originally from Guatemala.

Andrea Ayvazian, associate minister of the Alden Baptist Church in Springfield, led the group in prayer.

"We thank you for sanctuary, we thank you fo churches that step out and take  risks, we thank you for community," Ayvazian said. "And most of all we thank you for Lucio and his witness, his courage, his love."

Perez had been in the hospital since Monday, when an ambulance took him there for emergency surgery to have his appendix out. He'd been living at the First Church in Amherst, which started providing him sanctuary last October. 

'The in-between is unsafe and risky'

"The risk for him is he does have a deportation order. He did defy that deportation order by taking sanctuary and so he is safe in that situation by being in the church," said Rose Bookbinder of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, who helped coordinate Perez's trip. "So unfortunately, he needed [this] lifesaving surgery and had to come to the hospital. And so the in-between is unsafe and risky."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said, for the most part, it won't try to arrest people in "sensitive locations," including churches and hospitals.

Bookbinder and Perez said they worried he could be arrested traveling from one to the other. To reduce that risk, Bookbinder invited all these people -- and some reporters -- to witness Perez's trip back to the church.

After the prayer, they walked over to the hospital's reflecting garden. Many of them held flowers, and they waited for Perez to emerge.

When he did, Perez quickly got into a small green car with the reverend at the church where he's taking sanctuary, and the mayor of Northampton, and they drove past well-wishers lining both sides of the road.

They made the nine-mile trip to the church without incident.

Parishioners were waiting to welcome him back, and Perez thanked them, in Spanish, before offering a phrase in English.

"God bless everyone," he said.

'No attempt...to apprehend this individual'

A New England spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Mohan, said in an email that there was "no attempt, nor would there have been an attempt to apprehend this individual in the manner suggested by some of those involved in these events."

In his email, Mohan summarized ICE's "sensitive locations" policy, but did not answer when asked if officials avoid "enforcement actions" during travel between those locations.

Mohan did not answer if ICE knew Perez had been in the hospital, although Perez said he is required to wear an ankle bracelet tracking his location.

'I'll be here for an uncertain amount of time'

Outside the church, Perez said this is a very important day in his life and he'll never forget it.

"Thank God everything went well," he said, pausing for a translator. "Although, I'll be here for an uncertain amount of time. I'll continue to live here in this church," hoping for a solution.