Responding to modern-day immigration policy with a thousands-year-old faith tradition, First Church Amherst is providing sanctuary to a Guatemalan man facing deportation.

Lucio Perez, who came to this country almost 20 years ago and has three children who are U.S. citizens, entered the First Congregational Church in Amherst Wednesday, October 18th, shortly after his Stay of Removal was denied by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Perez is waiting for his case to be adjudicated by the Board of Immigration Appeals, and sought sanctuary in an effort to keep his family together as he waits for a decision.

Perez is welcome to live in the church building until his case is settled. Church members have transformed a meeting room into a bedroom for Perez, with a sitting area, microwave, and small refrigerator.

“Our scriptures tell us to love our neighbors and love and care for the foreigners and marginalized persons in our midst, just as God does,” said the Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor of the United Church of Christ congregation. “Lucio is our neighbor and our brother, and he and his family deserve justice and peace. We welcome him into our church with open hearts and fervent prayers.”

While First Church Amherst now becomes the first faith community in Western Massachusetts to offer sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant, this was not anyone’s preferred outcome, Perez’s supporters said.

The Pioneer Valley Workers Center (PVWC) and other groups and faith leaders have been working for months for a resolution to Perez’s case that would allow him to stay with his family.

In September, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials ordered Perez to leave the country by October 19 and fitted him with an electronic ankle-bracelet to monitor his location. The 35-year-old landscaper and Springfield resident has no criminal record, but he came to the attention of immigration authorities in 2009 after West Hartford police alleged that he had abandoned his children when he went inside a Dunkin Donuts.

Deportation proceedings against Perez were put on hold under President Obama’s immigration policies as long as he checked in annually with immigration officials. But policies have changed under the Trump administration, and in July Perez was denied another stay of his deportation.

Perez’s lawyers have filed a Motion to Reopen his original case for cancellation of removal. His emergency Motion to Stay was denied on October 18th, at 5 p.m. Facing separation from his wife and children, Perez chose to seek sanctuary while awaiting next steps in his case.

“I am so thankful to First Congregational Church of Amherst for opening the doors to me,” said Perez. “I am grateful for the support of the community and my family. Together we are strong.”

A network of faith communities and activist organizations is assisting the church in providing hospitality to Perez.