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St. Francis in the Foothills provides man sanctuary from deportation
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St. Francis in the Foothills provides man sanctuary from deportation

  • Attorney Margo Cowan, Francisco Perez Cordova, and his wife Sarai Milla thank the congregation at St. Francis of the Foothills, where Cordova will seek sanctuary from deportation.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comAttorney Margo Cowan, Francisco Perez Cordova, and his wife Sarai Milla thank the congregation at St. Francis of the Foothills, where Cordova will seek sanctuary from deportation.
  • Francisco Perez Cordova and his youngest children after a press conference where Cordova announced that he would be going into sanctuary to avoid a formal order of deportation.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comFrancisco Perez Cordova and his youngest children after a press conference where Cordova announced that he would be going into sanctuary to avoid a formal order of deportation.

For nearly a year, Francisco Perez Cordova has feared leaving his home.

With a formal order of deportation hanging over his head, Cordova has worried that a drive to work or the grocery store could lead to his removal from the United States, separating the married father of five from his family.

On Thursday night, he went into sanctuary at St. Francis of the Foothills, a United Methodist church in Tucson, joining the growing sanctuary movement in Arizona and around the United States that has grown throughout the summer.

Around 50 people surrounded Cordova, his wife Sarai Milla, and their five children who range from 9 months to 12 years old, and listened as the family's lawyer, Margo Cowan, compared Cordova's case to two other sanctuary cases. Rosa Robles Loreto is at Southside Presbyterian Church as Cowan works on her deportation case, and Daniel Neyoy Ruiz waited for nearly a month at the church before he was granted a one-year stay of deportation in June.

"Like Rosa Robles, who has been in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian for 50 days, missing her husband and her sons, we are here again, asking the Obama administration to intervene on behalf of Francisco Perez Cordova," Cowan said.

Cowan said that thousands of people had sent letters and emails to the White House in support of Robles Loreto, but "what we've heard from Washington is silence." 

Without a stay of deportation, any contact that Corvoda has with law enforcement is fraught with the threat of deportation, Cowan said. 

"Francisco is about to take sanctuary in this church, who are willing to protect him because at any moment, going to work, taking the kids to school, going to the grocery store, he could have been detained and removed without ever getting the chance to say goodbye," Cowan said. 

Rev. Jim Wiltbank, the church's pastor, praised the couple and their five children. "They are the greatness on which America has been built, but only if we have the courage to say no to what's happening today," he said.

"I can imagine the pain that is in their hearts as they look at the difficulty of the decisions that confront them — the nightmare that they are going through," he said.

Wiltbank said that church agreed to sanctuary because of Rev. Alison Harrington, who leads Southside Presbyterian, asked him to help.

"But St. Francis stepped wholeheartedly into sanctuary because of people like Francisco and Sarai," he said. "We are here to make sure this family stays together. This family should never be separated, they should be home."

"I want to say thank you," said Cordova, his voice cracking. "Thank you from me and my family for this community for all the support." 

Rev. Alison Harrington, the pastor for Southside Presbyterian, was there along with six other faith leaders to show support.

In the last few weeks, her church has been joined by more than 20 congregations across the United States that have offered to give sanctuary to people in deportation proceedings.

This includes University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, where Luis Lopez Acabal took sanctuary on Sept. 11 and Agustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Ore., where Francisco Aguirre went into sanctuary on Sept. 19. 

For their part, immigration officials have remained mum on the growing sanctuary movement, preferring to remind the public of the agency's limits on "enforcement actions" at sensitive locations. 

Called the Morton memo for its author, former ICE Director John Morton, the policy — passed into law by Congress in 2013 — limits enforcement at schools, hospitals and churches and requires agents to get prior approval before making arrests in such locations. Organizations that assist with children, pregnant women, victims of crime or abuse, or individuals with significant mental or physical disabilities should also be handled with particular care, the policy said.

Additionally, the policy outlines places that were considered "sensitive," including schools, hospitals and churches where immigration officials would not make arrests unless they had prior approval. The memo outlined some exceptions to this rule, namely national security, pursuit of a felon, destruction of evidence, or the possibility that someone could be harmed.

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