by the Mount Holyoke College Sanctuary Collective

Photo Credit: Professor David Hernández

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.
Lucío Pérez speaks at Amherst’s First Congregational Church in October of 2017. Photo Credit: Dan Glaun

Guevara recalls:

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.”

Button designs by Sarah Fite with input from the class

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.

Photo Credit: Professor David Hernández

The Visit

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.

In January 2018, 36 people resided in migrant sanctuary nationwide and 450 religious congregations were ready to provide it.

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

Button designs by Sarah Fite