AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – It has been two years since Lucio Perez showed up at the First Congregational Church in Amherst without knowing when he would be able to return home to his family in Springfield. Two years since the church took a leap of faith to protect a stranger.
The Guatemalan immigrant made the decision to take sanctuary at the church when he was faced with deportation back in October 2017. The current U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement policy directs ICE agents to avoid enforcement activities at sensitive locations such as churches, hospitals, and schools.
“When I came here I did not think it was going to be this long, but it’s incredible to see that two years have already gone by,” Lucio said.
The only time Lucio left the church in the last two years was when he fell ill last Spring and required emergency surgery at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Other than that, Lucio says he’s limited to the church itself and the yard outside. The GPS monitoring bracelet around his ankle is a constant reminder of the struggle he’s going through.
“It’s difficult to explain how someone can come here and leave the family and where they grew up,” Lucio said. “It’s difficult because we leave our country for many reasons. We try to look for a place for our family and ourselves where there is no corruption and we don’t have to grow up among gangs and live in danger.”
Lucio and his wife have four children– 21, 17, 15, and 10 years old, three of whom were born in the United States. They make sure to visit their father at least three times a week, but it breaks his heart that he can’t go home with them.
The First Church Amherst community has without a doubt become Lucio’s second family. More than 120 volunteers provide rides for his family to visit and 12 congregations provide meals for him to eat. Reverend Vicki Kemper said there’s not even a time when Lucio is alone in the church because people choose to stay with him all hours of the day and night.
“For me it’s something unexplainable because while it has been difficult, I’ve seen the support of the community working hard.” he explained.
Lucio gives back by teaching Spanish lessons to the public and being a rock to anyone who needs some encouragement. Every Tuesday, Lucio is a part of a conference call with about 45 other immigrants taking sanctuary in churches around the country.
“He has become their leader in terms of their spiritual leader, their emotional leader,” Kemper said. “He is so strong and his faith is so deep that he encourages them when their cases are dragging out and becoming very difficult and as they’re missing their family. He really encourages them to stay strong.”
Lucio knows that not everybody is on their side.
“We sometimes tend to discriminate towards people without knowing why they are here,” Lucio said. “One leaves their country for many reasons and then we come here to try to provide a better future for our family and it seems like maybe others do not see it that way so they don’t feel we belong here.”
“He’s been here a long, long time,” Kemper said. “There were times in the past 10-15 years where with national policies and politics, we came very close to him being given permission to stay here. He had many years of regular check-ins with immigration authorities and then after President Trump came into office, everything changed and suddenly he went to his immigration check-in and was told he had to leave the country.”
Lucio came to the United States as a teenager. ICE was alerted to his presence in the United States in 2009 after West Hartford police accused him of abandoning his children while running inside a Dunkin’ Donuts. His case is currently before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
“There have been some positive developments such as a Supreme Court ruling back in 2018 that give us hope that there will be a ruling to reopen his case, but it’s very hard and it takes a lot of patience and a lot of time,” Rev. Kemper said.
“I think it’s important to work hard and get ahead,” Lucio said. ” And to my friends with no papers, keep fighting and don’t give up. Like we say, ‘un pueblo unido jamas sera vencido’ or ‘a united nation will never be defeated.
The church will mark Lucio’s two years in sanctuary with an event on October 21.
22News left a message with ICE for a statement regarding Lucio’s status. This story will be updated once we hear back from them.