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Man in sanctuary at Tucson church gets Christmas Eve reprieve
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Man in sanctuary at Tucson church gets Christmas Eve reprieve

  • Francisco Perez Cordova lights a prayer candle for Rosa Robles Loreto, who has been in sanctuary at a south Tucson church for more than 100 days. While ICE has agreed to administratively close Perez Cordova's case, Robles Loreto must remain at Southside Presbyterian Church.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comFrancisco Perez Cordova lights a prayer candle for Rosa Robles Loreto, who has been in sanctuary at a south Tucson church for more than 100 days. While ICE has agreed to administratively close Perez Cordova's case, Robles Loreto must remain at Southside Presbyterian Church.
  • Community members cheer as  Francisco Perez Cordova leaves St. Francis of the Foothills.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comCommunity members cheer as  Francisco Perez Cordova leaves St. Francis of the Foothills.
  • Francisco Perez Cordova and two of his five children at St. Francis of the Foothills in September.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comFrancisco Perez Cordova and two of his five children at St. Francis of the Foothills in September.

A Tucson man who has been in sanctuary at a North Side church to avoid deportation received an early Christmas present Tuesday—he was able to go home. 

Francisco Perez Cordova had been in sanctuary at St. Francis in the Foothills since Sept. 25,  after immigration officials refused to grant him a stay of deportation against a final order of removal created a nearly a year ago. 

However, after 90 days officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to close his case Tuesday, allowing Perez Cordova to leave the church and join his family at home. 

On Wednesday, the community marked the occasion with a brief community service at the church on 4625 East River Rd., after a press conference at noon, and then Perez Cordova left the church with his family.

Rev. Jim Wiltbank, the United Methodist church's pastor, praised the decision from ICE.

"When Francisco entered sanctuary at St. Francis, our prayers were that this family would be allowed to remain together,"  Wiltbank said Tuesday night. "Now on the eve of our faith’s most powerful parable of a family’s search for safety, we are humbled to send this family back to their normal lives, together."

The family's attorney, Margo Cowan, said that the decision allowed Perez Cordova to "return to the life he never should have had to abandon due to his fear of deportation and permanent separation from his family. There are many other fathers, husbands and brothers like Francisco who still face the fear of living under an order of deportation."

Perez Cordova, a Mexican national, is married and has five children who are all U.S. citizens. His wife, Sarai Milla, has applied for deferred action status.

His case began in July 2009, when he was arrested by Border Patrol agents after his brother-in-law reported a crime.

During the investigation, officers with the Tucson Police Department ran checks on the nearby cars and discovered that Cordova's had been registered with a document from Mexico, said Cowan.

When Perez Cordova arrived to get his car, he was arrested by Border Patrol and held in Florence before he was transferred through a series of holding areas because of fears of an H1N1 flu outbreak.

Perez Cordova was eventually transferred to holding in Lancaster, Calif., where he stayed for nearly a month before a bond was issued for his release. Two weeks before he would have been deported, he went to the legal clinic hosted by Southside Presbyterian Church.

Perez Cordova followed two other Tucson sanctuary cases, and was one of three in Arizona. On Dec. 13,  Luis Lopez-Acabal went home after spending 100 days in a Tempe church. Across the nation churches have offered sanctuary to at least five other immigrants in the last few months, including in Chicago and Denver.

On Tuesday, a church in Philadelphia followed suit.

Faith groups have become the heart of a revived sanctuary movement since May, when Tucson's Southside Presbyterian offered sanctuary to a Mexican man who was facing a deportation order.

After 26 days, immigration officials granted Daniel Neyoy Ruiz a one-year stay, however, a Mexican woman who tried to follow his example has remains in sanctuary after more than 100 days.

In August, Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto went into sanctuary and immigration officials have refused to grant her a stay, instead they have repeated that the agency "has decided to exercise prosecutorial discretion by not taking immediate action on Ms. Robles Loreto’s removal order" and that officials had no plans to take her into custody.

While an immigrant in Chicago was able to earn her stay since she was the victim of domestic violence, until now many of the rest remain in place, waiting for immigration officials to administratively close their case, a year-long stay, or an acceptance that they are covered under the expansion of DACA.

Perez Cordova had contact with immigration authorities before. 

Between 1996 and 1997, Perez Cordova was deported three times by immigration officials after he was pulled over by Pima County sheriff's deputies — once on the way to work, once on his way home from the grocery store, and once on his way home from the swap meet.

Each time he signed a voluntary departure request, given to Mexican nationals as part of Border Patrol policy.

In 1998, he left to see his ailing mother in Mexico and returned through Sasabe where he was caught by Border Patrol and again returned.

In September, immigration officials declined to give relief after Perez Cordova went into sanctuary, but the agency reiterated a policy that the agents will not conduct enforcement operations at sensitive locations, such as churches.

Congress passed a law in 2013 that limits enforcement at schools, hospitals and churches, and requires agents to get prior approval before making arrests in such places.

The case against Perez Cordova took on a new character in November after President Barack Obama announced that he was expanding the deferred action program to include parents of citizens and legal residents who have been in the United States at least five years.

The president also expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to cover undocumented immigrants who are over 30 and those who entered after 2007, but before 2011.

Under the original program, officials approved 21,000 applications in Arizona alone, and another 4,000 were accepted in June.

Around 136,000 people should be covered by the changes in Arizona, according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute, including 97,000 parents of legal residents and another 39,000 covered by the expansion of DACA.

However, while millions are included in the program, at least 5.8 million people in the United States without authorization are not covered, according to the Pew Research Center. 

While Perez Cordova appeared to fit well within the guidelines created by the president, until recently immigration officials rebuffed efforts to keep him in the country.  Instead, ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley wrote that after a "comprehensive review" the agency was continuing to exercise "prosecutorial discretion in the case and currently has no plans to take action on his removal order."

Haley noted that Perez Cordova's case had reached a federal judge in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who declined to intervene. 

Nationally, around 90,000 people ICE sought to remove were allowed to stay in the United States, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University.

Cowan noted that while Perez Cordova has been granted relief from deportation,  Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto has spent four months in sanctuary despite the President's November executive order.

"ICE officials have yet to act on her case, and she and her family will celebrate Christmas this year at the church, her children hoping that soon they will be home with their mom," Cowan said.

Data from TRAC notes that there were around 79,000 orders of removal signed by immigration judges this year. In Arizona, there were 278 orders of removal granted by judges this year.

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