FOR 3½ YEARS, Dora Gonzalez repeated a painful weekly ritual. “It was a very, very sad routine,” she says in Spanish, “with many tears and sad faces.” Every Saturday at 10 a.m., a volunteer from a local nonprofit organization supporting immigrant workers would collect her and her four children at their home in Springfield to make the 45-minute drive to First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Amherst. There, they’d spend the day with her husband, Lucio Perez, the children’s father.
On days when there was a church function, the family would help Perez prepare meals in the church kitchen. Sometimes the kids would play basketball with their dad in the parking lot. Often, they’d spend time where he slept: a converted church meeting room equipped with a bed, refrigerator, table, and a stationary exercise bike; sometimes they prayed together. Talking about school, family, work, and faith, it almost felt normal. But at 5 p.m., Perez’s family climbed into a vehicle for the ride home, leaving him behind.
Between October 2017 and March 2021, in an effort to avoid deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Perez lived at the church’s 2-acre property and left only twice, for emergency hospital visits. Returning to Guatemala alone would tear him apart from his family, leaving him hopelessly far away; he never considered taking his US-born children to the country he’d left behind, one they knew only from stories. Though there was always at least one other person on site during his years-long stay, the solitude wore him down. “I used to say that men don’t cry. But now I understand that this is a lie,” he says. It’s one of the many lessons he learned while in sanctuary. “When you love your family, and you don’t want to be separated, you have to cry.”
Perez and Gonzalez married as teenagers in 1997 in their hometown of San Marcos, Guatemala. In December 1998, they had their first child. Two weeks later, a 17-year-old Perez headed north, touching US soil on January 15, 1999. Perez says the violence and corruption of Guatemala motivated his decision. Both factors made it difficult to provide for his family, especially when his father fell ill, and he felt he could support them better from abroad. Even so, saying goodbye to his newborn son left him with a sadness he still finds “unimaginable.”
Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended only two years before Perez’s departure. Roughly 200,000 people died; an estimated 150,000 were Indigenous Mayan people killed in a genocide by the US-backed Guatemalan regime from 1981 to 1983. Continuing economic struggles, war recovery, and violence drove hundreds of thousands — including Perez — to flee the country. The number of immigrants of Guatemalan descent (regardless of status) residing in the United States began to balloon, according to the Migration Policy Institute, rising from 63,100 in 1980 to well over 450,000 by the time Perez emigrated.
In 2001, Gonzalez joined her husband in Delaware; their son stayed in Guatemala with Perez’s family. Gonzalez gave birth to two boys before the couple moved to Springfield, where their daughter was born. Then in 2011, while on a trip to New Haven with their US-born children — ages 9, 8, and 18 months at the time — the couple stopped at a Dunkin Donuts in West Hartford. “That’s when my Calvary began,” Perez says. He went inside to get drinks for the family, leaving Gonzalez in the car with the children. While he was in line, she left the car to use the restroom, then joined her husband to help carry the drinks. That was when they saw two police officers at their car, Perez says. “To this day I don’t understand how it happened.”
Perez was detained on criminal charges of child abandonment. Those charges were dropped, but he remained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for days before he was allowed to return home wearing a heavy GPS ankle monitor, required to report to ICE twice a week. The family income took a hit as he was forced to cut his weekly work hours doing landscaping from over 60 down to about 35.
At the time of his arrest, Perez was unable to prove that he had lived in the United States for more than 10 years — a crucial milestone that, according to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, could potentially make normalization of legal status easier for people who entered the country without authorization. And when ICE issued Perez a “notice to appear” — a document that normally includes a court date and time — the clock stopped ticking in his favor, says Perez’s current lawyer, Glenn Formica. Though there was no court date or time on the notice Perez received, it was enough to invoke the “stop-time rule” under the interpretation of the rules followed at that time, meaning his time in the US would no longer count toward his residency.
In 2012, Perez received an order of deportation, but his lawyer was able to obtain a stay under an Obama-era policy that allowed those who self-reported to ICE and were low priority for removal to obtain a temporary work authorization. These legal delays can also be granted “for a certain amount of time because of some sort of compelling humanitarian reason,” says Eliana Nader, chair of the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The legal nuances meant little to the couple’s children, whose behavior started to change. They began to express fears that both their parents would be sent away. Gonzalez, who worked nights in a factory at the time, says those changes intensified when Donald J. Trump was elected president. “When I’d come home late at night, the children would always be awake, making sure that I arrived,” she says. Only then would they lie down. “I’d tell them: ‘You need to go to bed earlier to study in the morning.’ And they would say to me: ‘OK, now that you’re home, we can go sleep.’” Gonzalez fretted over her children’s anxiety. Why do they have to live in fear like this? With such trauma? With such anguish in their hearts? she’d ask herself.
Trauma — even indirect trauma — is common among the approximately 4.1 million US citizen children of people who entered the country without authorization. In one study published by the American Psychological Association in 2015, 29 percent of the 91 children participating met the criteria for a full or partial diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. And in 2019, the National Council on Family Relations, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, found that the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration adversely affected the mental health of children in mixed status immigrant families.
Trauma “can manifest itself in all sorts of ways,” says Luis Zayas, author of the book Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans, “but most often it’s as anxiety and depression.”
The radical change Perez’s family had been fearing was about to happen. And when it came, it would entwine their lives with those of congregants at a church they’d never even attended.
Like millions of Americans, the Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor at First Congregational Church, known as First Church Amherst, followed the 2016 race for president and the rhetoric surrounding immigration, especially from the Trump campaign. When President Trump signed an executive order during his first week in office prioritizing the deportation of all who entered the country without authorization — including those with no criminal record — Kemper decided First Church Amherst should discuss its position regarding defense of immigrants. “I began leading our congregation through a series of studies and services to make it clear that Judeo-Christian tradition and our scriptures call us to care for the stranger,” Kemper says.
In June 2017, the church voted to become an immigrant-welcoming congregation. As it happened, in August, Perez was ordered by ICE to buy a ticket to leave the country by October 19. “It was then that people began to speak to me about sanctuary,” he says.
Sanctuary, though intended as an effort to prevent deportation, is not a legal doctrine that ICE must observe, despite what many people think, Formica says. According to ICE, the agency’s “sensitive locations policy” directs officers to avoid carrying out an “enforcement action” at churches, courthouses, medical institutions, schools, and certain other locations. Formica contends it’s to avoid the bad publicity that would ensue if its officers were to follow through on such raids. “All sanctuary is, is someone saying, ‘I want to go and pray and have some time for reflection,’” Formica explains. (ICE declined to comment on Perez’s case, citing privacy reasons.)
After hearing about Perez’s case from Margaret Sawyer, codirector of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Northampton, which organized the campaign against Perez’s deportation, First Church Amherst called an emergency congregational meeting on September 13, 2017, and within 24 hours, Kemper says, 40 people showed up to discuss the situation. Perez made his case, then stepped out. The overwhelming consensus was in favor of offering sanctuary, and they immediately went to Perez, who had been waiting in a meeting room that would soon become his residence.
Despite the church’s offer, Perez agonized over what to do. He had already bought a ticket to Guatemala, but was scared to leave his wife and children behind. He’d seen the economic and psychological pain his sisters and their children suffered when his two brothers-in-law were deported. “I sat down and spoke with my family, and they said, ‘Why don’t you go into sanctuary? It’s better that you stay and go there. We might not be able to see you every day. But at least we’ll be able to see you.” On the evening of October 18, 2017 — less than 24 hours before ICE’s ordered departure deadline — Perez moved into his new home.
The church trained more than 50 volunteers to ensure that there was always at least one other person on church grounds with him. He made friends, but that first year drained him mentally. He often walked the halls, kitchens, and other areas of the building. And he prayed. “I wasn’t accustomed to that sort of life,” he says. “Even though I was on US territory, it wasn’t easy. I kept thinking about how my children were still small and what might be going on with them.”
As time dragged on, Perez was still unable to leave. He began to teach conversational Spanish classes, which supplemented the family’s income with donations from students. He started giving interviews to journalists and speaking to visiting community groups and university classes focused on US immigration. He also picked up some cooking skills and sometimes helped volunteers prepare food for the church’s Not Bread Alone Soup Kitchen.
Sawyer was among his closest allies. She enrolled her daughter in the church preschool so she could visit Perez regularly and check on his morale. One year later, her child graduated and moved on, Sawyer says, but “Lucio was still there.” As his stay continued, his case drew more attention, and Senator Edward Markey visited him in January 2018.
No one knew how long Perez would stay. Least of all himself. “I was so happy to be in the house of God,” he says. “But I truly did feel sad.” Back in Springfield, Gonzalez was putting in 10-hour workdays, often six days a week, picking up extra hours to pay the bills. She’d visit her husband on Fridays when she could, and the children would go on their own twice weekly, chauffeured by Pioneer Valley Workers Center volunteers. The kids did what they could to help their mother keep the household running, but the strain was showing on everyone. “I couldn’t sleep while my husband was in the church,” she says. “I would take pills to help me sleep and still could not.
“One evening, my daughter came to me and said, ‘Mamita, I want to take one of those pills to help me sleep. I told her, ‘You can’t, it’s not good for you.’ I told her I’d make her a tea so she could sleep. She said, ‘Teas don’t work for me.’” In that moment, Gonzalez felt helpless, shrouded in worry.
Zayas, who’s dean of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, says that a traumatic loss like the sudden “disappearance” of a biological parent is bound to leave psychological scars, even if Perez was living only 25 miles away. “He spent [almost] four years in sanctuary,” a good chunk of his daughter’s life, Zayas says. “She’s 12 now, but God, that’s a long time.”
A phone call on May 15, 2019, was a turning point for Perez and his supporters at the church. He was planting tomatoes outside with one of the volunteers when he got a call from his lawyer’s office informing him his deportation would not be deferred — the second denial in two years. After he hung up, the volunteer tried to comfort him, but it was no use. “I asked God to give me strength because in that moment, I felt totally defeated,” Perez remembers.
He went to his room but felt restless and walked back outside, leaving his phone behind. Overwhelmed, he turned to the mindless task of pulling weeds, but quickly felt drained. “I lay down on the ground and started to cry,” he says. Eventually, after praying, he calmed down. That’s when he noticed something unusual in the parking lot. It was a Friday, the pastor’s day off, but her car was there. The volunteer had alerted Kemper and the team that she couldn’t find Perez and he wasn’t answering his phone. “I thought that they must be looking for me and were worried about me.” He went back inside. “When the volunteer saw me she said, ‘Lucio! You’re back! You’re back!’ and then she started to cry.”
Minutes later, Perez says Sawyer and Kemper came inside in tears, and they embraced. “Finding out he lost was really devastating,” Sawyer says. “I wasn’t sure whether he just decided to leave.” Kemper says it was the bleakest point of their ordeal, but it led to a change in tactics. “That moment was like a little death,” Kemper says. “In the Christian tradition, a lot of our faith is based on this idea of transformation and new life that comes after death.” She and Perez credit Sawyer with playing a big role in moving them through it.
After Perez’s lawyer indicated she didn’t see a way forward, Sawyer called around to find one who did. “I just felt that we were this team and we needed to keep going. And we’re still a team,” Sawyer says.
From that moment on, Perez felt his spirits lift. The church continued to provide moral support to the entire family, and the sanctuary team did what they could to keep Perez’s case in the public eye. In October 2019, on the second anniversary of his first night there, church members and sanctuary volunteers rang the bell 730 times — once for each day of Perez’s stay in sanctuary. His children rang the last bells.
“No one wanted to give up,” Kemper says, “but it was hard to know if there was much basis for hope.”
As the days, weeks, and months melded together for Perez inside the church, which had quieted significantly once COVID took hold, visible progress was being made on the outside. His case gained support from high-profile members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. Congressman Jim McGovern introduced a bill last October in the US House of Representatives to make Perez eligible for immigrant visas or other form of lawful residence.
In January 2021, Senators Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representatives McGovern, Ayanna Presley, and Lori Trahan were among the 30 federal lawmakers who signed a letter calling on President Biden to grant relief to the 40 people then seeking sanctuary in churches around the country.
Finally, on March 5, Perez received the joyful phone call he’d been waiting for: His stay of deportation had been granted by ICE under the new Biden administration. Relief washed over him. “I was able to go where I wished. No one was going to arrest me,” he says. Taking no chances, he waited a little over a week and then — with the press and supporters present — Perez left the church premises together with his family.
For Gonzalez, that moment was a culmination of prayer and conviction. Rev. Kemper felt her faith deepen, too. “I think this is the first thing Lucio would say, so it’s the first thing I’ll say. We learned again that God is faithful, and we learned the power of solidarity and community,” she says. “I personally have learned a lot about the powerlessness which so many people live with 24/7.”
At 10 a.m. on June 1, Perez logged onto an online news conference that would be live-streamed on Facebook. A checkerboard of faces began to populate screens as he slipped in alongside Sawyer, Kemper, Formica, and Representative McGovern.
After a brief introduction by Sawyer in her capacity as codirector of Pioneer Valley Workers Center, which hosted the news conference, Formica spoke about what he considers to be a watershed change for his client and thousands of others: the April 29 Supreme Court decision in the Niz-Chavez v. Garland immigration case. Formica hopes this 6-3 decision will allow his client to have his case heard in Hartford Immigration Court.
The opinion, written by Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, drills down into the precise way ICE must communicate to immigrants it intends to deport. It finds that a single notice — and that’s the key point — lacking a court date and other essential information is inadequate to stop the clock on the requirement to live in the United States consecutively for 10 years, crucial for immigrants hoping to have their status normalized. “A lot of people may have a new opportunity to reopen their case,” Formica said, “and go in front of the immigration judge and say, ‘I didn’t have 10 years when you deported me, but now I have 10 years, and I have a hardship to my US citizen immediate family members.’”
After Formica was finished, Perez, a man who once preferred to remain unseen, spoke up, slowly, calmly, and humbly in Spanish. “I feel happy to see each and every one of you taking the time to join this meeting this morning. Thank you, each one of you.” He paused briefly, to find the right words to convey his thoughts. “I know that you will be rewarded by God for all the work you are doing for me and many others.” He then turned to his prepared statement. “I feel obligated to say thank you to the Supreme Court justices,” he read from his prepared remarks. “I thank them for their attentive analysis of the situation . . . [and] for giving me this chance to reopen my case, and I hope that others will follow suit.”
Then, lifting his face to the camera, Perez took a moment to reflect on his years in sanctuary. He thanked all those present for all their support of him and his family throughout the ordeal. “I’ve been here in the US for 23 years . . . . I came here to work hard and provide for my family and to give them a better future. That is why I am fighting,” he said. “I feel that my roots are now here.”
Perez says he plans to draw on his hard-won knowledge and experience to advocate for himself and for immigration reform. “In terms of immigration law, I had little knowledge. But now I am a little more enlightened,” he says, acknowledging the lawyers who have provided guidance.
The children’s disquiet has calmed since their father’s return home, Gonzalez says. “You can see it in their faces.” Now, on Saturdays, instead of a long ride to visit their father in church, they can — in her words — do what other families do on the weekend. “They say, ‘Papi, we can go out for a coffee now?’ And he says, ‘Yes!’”
Kevin G. Andrade is a journalist in Providence, who often writes about immigration issues. Follow him on Twitter @KevinGAndrade. Send comments to email@example.com.
This story has been updated to correct the author’s Twitter handle.