by the Mount Holyoke College Sanctuary Collective
This past spring semester, as part of Mount Holyoke College’s “History of Deportation” class about detention, deportation, and prisons, we visited Springfield, Massachusetts, resident Lucío Pérez at First Congregational Church in Amherst. Mr. Pérez has resided in migrant sanctuary since October of 2017. Our visit took place in March of 2018 and as a collective we are sharing our reflections about the experience.
Professor David Hernández who leads the thirteen-student course arranged for the visit. In previous semesters, he and students visited the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, MA, with Freedom for Immigrants (then CIVIC) co-director Christina Mansfield in the hope of creating a permanent visitation program. In the Fall of 2017, Hernández and his class on “Latina/o/x Immigration” were following the story of Pérez and his pending deportation. Hernández says:
In Fall 2017, I began following a local story of a man being targeted for deportation by the Trump administration. This local parent and laborer was Lucío Pérez. His deportation had been deferred under Obama, but under Trump, such persons were being picked up at their scheduled check-ins with ICE. I recall student Vanesa Guevara asking what could be done now that he was ordered deported and told to purchase a ticket and leave the country. In my own melancholy, I remember just shaking my head, saying to her and the class that not much could be done at this point. It seemed like he exhausted his options.
But the local community never stopped mobilizing, and by the next class period, the answer to Vanesa’s question was in the local paper, which I brought to class. Sanctuary. Of course, sanctuary.
I was saddened about his situation and the ambiguity of his future in the United States . . . and how hard it must have been for his children. I wanted to know what could be done, if anything. I asked the question in class to see if anyone had any ideas. At the time, no solutions were produced.
To my relief, next class, Professor Hernández brought in another article about Lucío. Sanctuary! Not too far away! Although this was not a permanent solution to his deportation, it would give him more time. Going from hearing Lucío’s story last year to meeting him in person this year was a very significant and unique interaction that I didn’t expect to have happened.
Preparing to Visit
We were all aware of the asymmetry of our visit, where we as a class could gain something educational and experiential and Mr. Pérez had nothing tangible to gain. A visit could sink into awkwardness or exploitation, where the focus might be on our own feelings and reactions and less on the turmoil experienced by Mr. Pérez. Professor Hernández worked carefully with the church liaison to ask if Mr. Pérez would be interested in visitors, especially a sizable group of students. We were reassured that we were welcome, that Mr. Pérez regularly took visitors, and that he appreciated our efforts. Being acutely aware that our class stood to gain more from this experience, we sought to be well-informed about the context under which Pérez sought sanctuary, as well as his individual circumstances.
Prior to the visit, we shared amongst the class what we knew about Pérez. There was a good amount of media attention in local papers, and the church liaisons shared information as well. One of us, Milo Ward, had been in close contact with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center (PVWC), an advocacy organization in Northampton, which had been working to defend Pérez since his initial deportation proceedings.
“Lucío’s crime was contact. The minor charges–charges that even the ICE agent called racist–that placed him in contact with ICE were dropped. But the Trump administration pursued this anyway,” said Ward.
In particular, Pérez wanted us to study up on the history of U.S. intervention in Central America to help us understand contemporary migration from that region. We read from María Cristina García’s book Seeking Refuge, and saw the film “Americas in Transition” as well. These political histories were crucial as we came to understand the near-half century of Central American migration and a near-century of U.S. intervention there too.
It was important for us, as it was important to Pérez that we learn this history, to learn about the interventions in Central America in the 1980s under the administration of Ronald Reagan. During Reagan’s presidency, the United States caused both economic and political instability in the region through the support of military violence and economic “development” which ended up harming rather than helping the region. The political and military warfare against communist/socialist regimes or rebels in Central America, backed by covert intelligence agents and U.S.-supported “liberation” groups, caused massive migration north.
In Seeking Refuge, García cites a Salvadoran migrant of the 1980s who noted, “The Reagan Administration doesn’t want to accept us as refugees because it would be admitting that the military aid it sends to El Salvador does not help, rather destroys and creates refugees,” (García 84).
Knowing this violent history helped us see the connection to Pérez’s case and why refugees and asylum seekers left then and today. Even in 2018, the U.S. is still denying safety and stability to migrants who flee climates of violence created by U.S. policies. We also discussed the limits and possibilities of the 1980s sanctuary movement and how our visit, this blog contribution, and community support can serve as an intervention into the Trump administration’s destructive policies.
In preparation for the visit, we learned that Pérez is married, has four children and is deeply religious. The church liaisons shared information about his children and what they like to do on their visits with their father. The class decided to do something reciprocal, not only as a gesture of our appreciation to Pérez, but to indicate our understanding of the impact sanctuary has had on his entire family.
One student, Kimberly Mota, consulted her student group, the Undocumented Immigrant Alliance (UIA), and suggested a fundraiser offering buttons for a donation. The UIA also took donations at one of their events. The buttons, conceived of and designed by student Sarah Fite with consultation from us, were a big hit. Brightly colored, with images of birds, bridges and immigrants, they read: “Build Bridges, Not Walls,” “Freedom to Move, Freedom to Stay,” and “No Border, No Nation, No Deportation.”
This fundraiser allowed us to spread the message about Pérez and his family, the sanctuary movement, and the harsh reality faced by the undocumented community in our current political climate. The campus community responded positively and within just a few hours we raised nearly $500. With the funds we bought gifts for the children that included books and games, as well as gift certificates to local restaurants for Pérez family visits at the church.
Upon our visit, in early March 2018, we rode together in vans from the College, were greeted by church staff, and were welcomed inside. Pérez was finishing up a Spanish class he was teaching. Things happened very quickly, including decisions about where we’d meet, and who would translate from Spanish to English. After presenting Mr. Perez with our gifts he took a deep breath and launched into a detailed account of his deportation proceedings, a history that spanned nearly a decade, and of which he seemed to recall every painful detail. His voice was calm and quiet, “at times barely audible,” wrote one student.
The way in which Mr. Perez visibly reflected on and was affected by his path through detention and deportation proceedings impacted the class as a whole. His testimony “created a palpable fear and uncertainty,” wrote Sarah Fite. Upon reflection, the class collectively reacted to the way Mr. Perez “soldiered through his testimony” by recounting feelings of empathy, helplessness, gut-wrenching heartache for his personal turmoil, and anger over the complicated legal process of seeking citizenship. While the ongoing efforts of the church and the community at large offered a humbling narrative of commitment and compassion, we had mixed feelings of both hope and despondency after the visit.
The language barrier was one of the biggest challenges throughout the visit with Pérez. A handful of students were fluent in Spanish, a few others knew some, and the rest relied on translation by students. One student in particular, Violeta Alvarez, did the lion’s share of the translating, without much advance notice. Alvarez recalls:
Translating is a difficult process because there are certain things that get lost in translation, particularly when Lucío expressed his feelings towards specific events. His experience reinforced the injustices undocumented people face in this country that criminalize their existence. Lucío is in fact resilient; however, we should remember that he should not be in such position in the first place. I hope that Lucío sharing his experience with different groups like our class will lead to changes in the system and will bring justice and liberation to the undocumented community.
Other students reflected on the language barrier and how it impacted their time with Pérez. Shebati Sengupta commented, “There was also something powerful about hearing his emotional journey, and then listening to my classmate’s translation.” Sengupta noted that there was a “level of collaboration” present in this mode of communication, and that this invoked deeper emotions for her. In general, we all witnessed and heard some portion of Pérez’s story, mediated via translation. The experience was highly emotional. There were long pauses, body language and facial expressions amongst everyone present denoting pain, confusion, uncertainty. It was uncomfortable, but necessary.
Through that mediation we learned of his family–absent from our visit, but very present too–which was probably the source of Pérez’s greatest heartache. Our class is made up of people with various backgrounds, some with direct family experiences with undocumented status. Learning about what he and his family have gone through hit home for us in different ways. Sarah Fite writes:
The children spoke to me loudest, because I am a parent and I know I would submit myself to any circumstances necessary if there was a threat I would be taken from my boys. My resounding thought or emotion is one of absolute helplessness — on Lucío’s behalf, sure, but also on my own. I can show up and I can listen and I can write a letter and attend a protest, but I cannot pick Lucío up in my truck and drive him home where he belongs. In that sense, visiting Lucio in sanctuary did more for me than it will ever do for him, and for that reason I am very, very angry.
After our visit with Pérez, student Jody Phelps wrote:
My immediate reflection of the Lucío visit was how hard it must be in terms of family. I’m not sure why this was the primary lens through which I saw the visit, but I could not stop thinking about his family. . . . It was clear from the visit how much he cares about his spouse and his children and how much it pains him to be apart from them.
These developments left us to process the general injustice that immigrants, specifically Central American immigrants, face in the United States. Ward contextualizes Pérez’s case by stating that violent American policies “cause regional instability and then refuse people fleeing that instability any safety or security in the U.S., a supposed bastion of ‘freedom’ and ‘security.’” While it is heartbreaking to see Pérez separated from his family, Leah Shipulski notes, “His decision to live in sanctuary is a politically resistant one. He is showing his community and, because of publicity of his situation, the national community of undocumented populations that there is another option.” As undocumented immigrants are increasingly targeted for detention and deportation, putting stories of sanctuary in the spotlight may motivate people to take action for immigrant rights.
All told, it was a very emotional experience. There was hope and hopelessness, dread mixed with courage, gratitude, and heartache. After, most of us were without words, without language to explain this human tragedy. We’d read so much about deportation throughout the semester, and here was a story of alienation right before us. Besides limited contact with family, churches can be sites of busy activity followed by silence and isolation. Whereas Pérez had a church staff member with him at all times, his family could only visit a few times a week and their travel from their home in Springfield to the Amherst church is a regular struggle.
Sanctuary: Not just a Place, but a Practice
Since our visit, two other women and their children have sought sanctuary in our area. One is in Northampton and another in Springfield. In Northampton, a Russian woman with a stay of removal under the Obama administration had it stripped away by the Trump administration, resulting in her sanctuary. She and her kids have received broad community support, much like Pérez in Amherst.
But in Springfield, the Democratic mayor Domenic Sarno has spoken out harshly against the Peruvian immigrant, Giselle Collazo, and her two U.S. citizen children. He directed city officials to inspect the church for possible building violations and to look into revoking the church’s tax exempt status. These punitive efforts are very much like Operation Sojourner in the 1980s, when the federal government covertly infiltrated and criminally prosecuted sanctuary workers.
As a strategy, sanctuary often relies on media components too, and can help people buy time to seek legal remedies. In 2017, for example, nine of the several dozen in sanctuary received reprieves and six in 2018 received legal relief. Of course, some do not go public and just hide, choosing secrecy over an outspoken sanctuary process. We see sanctuary, a strategy of last resort, working at least in limited ways. Hernández states:
Perhaps the issue of sanctuary will move the needle some. The Trump administration has unwittingly created a public education project about the rights of immigrants with its extremist enforcement goals and strategies. So, while Lucío’s situation exposes the obvious human aspects of living in sanctuary, the legal and policy contradictions and cruelties are also exposed.
Sengupta further suggests, “I hope the church and the community continues to show how significant the strength and impact of a united community can be. It really reflects the possibilities present in community activism.”
Seeing sanctuary as a group in March of 2018 taught us, above all, that “sanctuary is not just a place, but a practice,” as Avery Allen noted. It’s based on various levels of the community stepping forward to do their parts, to volunteer, check-in, drive family members to visits, and to keep the story in the media and push back against unfair policies. “The church created its own legal space to protect Lucio,” commented Maddy Skrak.
How do we help sustain and expand this legal space? For our part, we were all inspired by the courage of the Pérez family and humbled by the opportunity to visit Pérez and the First Congregational Church of Amherst. We hope that as a class and as a community we can translate this inspiration and humility into further action.
Written by the Mount Holyoke College Sanctuary Collective
(Avery Allen, Violeta Alvarez, Louisa Benarbane, Genesis DiCarlo, Sarah Fite, Vanesa Guevara, David Hernández, Kimberly Mota, Jody Phelps, Mahima Poreddy, Natalie Russianoff, Shebati Sengupta, Leah Shipulski, Madeline Skrak, and Milo Ward)
Coordinated by Professor David Hernández, Latina/o/x Studies
Latina/o Studies 365, “History of Deportation,” Spring 2018