A day after a loosely knit group of religious congregations throughout the country announced they are supporting a growing sanctuary movement, St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church welcomed a Tucson immigrant facing deportation.
Francisco Pérez Cordova, 37, is the latest immigrant to seek refuge in a church and the fourth case in Arizona since May. There are currently four other active cases, including that of Rosa Robles Loreto, who so far has spent almost 50 days inside Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian.
Pérez Cordova’s story echoes that of previous sanctuary seekers.
In 2009, he was detained after his brother-in-law called the Pima County Sheriff’s Department to report a burglary. The Border Patrol was brought in after deputies determined the family member was in the country illegally. Pérez Cordova, who arrived to help after being told about the burglary, was also questioned and arrested.
Only 18 when he left his home in Hermosillo, Sonora, in 1996, Pérez Cordova came to Tucson to support his family, he said.
After his father died in 1994 he tried to keep the family restaurant going, but at 16 he was not ready to run a business and it quickly went under. Feeling responsible for his mother and two younger brothers, he came to Arizona to work.
He originally thought he would be here a few months, earn some money and return, he said, but when he was ready to leave he was the victim of a robbery.
“I came here with nothing. I couldn’t go back with nothing. So I stayed a while longer, I got married, had children,” he said. “Now they want me to go back, but I don’t want to go.”
Pérez Cordova has five U.S.-born children, with ages ranging from 12 to 9 months, and his wife is eligible for the Deferred Action program, which allows immigrants who were brought into the country as children to remain without fear of deportation.
He said attorney error led him to be placed in removal proceedings. He’s been living under the threat of deportation since January.
Although the church council had unanimously agreed it should offer Pérez Cordova sanctuary, St. Francis in the Foothills Pastor Jim Wiltbank said it wanted the congregation to have the last word.
Wiltbank said a series of meetings were held to inform the community.
“As we went through this process, someone would ask, ‘Can we do this?’ And somebody else would say, ‘How can we not?’ This is who we are,” he said.
“Last Sunday we took our final vote, and it was a close one — 147 to 4,” he joked.
Kol Simchah, a Jewish congregation that shares worship space with St. Francis at 4625 E. River Road, also supported the decision to offer sanctuary.
Along with Southside Presbyterian, said Wiltbank, St. Francis was heavily involved in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, which helped Central Americans fleeing religious and political persecution.
The spirit of the Sanctuary Movement has recently mobilized churches across the country. Cities with congregations offering and supporting sanctuary include Boston, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia and Seattle, according to a statement by Church World Services, a faith-based humanitarian agency.
Sarah Launius, an immigrant-rights activist involved in the local sanctuary cases, said sanctuary is a reaction to current immigration policies that separate families.
“There are more and more families who are looking at the start of deportation and saying they’re not going to give up on their kids, they’re not going to give up on each other and are seeking sanctuary as a last resort,” she said.
Lanius blamed President Obama’s decision to delay any action on immigration reform until after the midterm elections with guaranteeing the movement will continue to grow.
“The fact that these actions are spreading, it’s the administration that is creating this, and it is the administration that can stop it, but that’s not going to happen with just trying to wait people out,” she said.
While Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, the first immigrant to seek sanctuary in Tucson this year, received a stay of deportation after less than a month, Robles Loreto has been at Southside Presbyterian since Aug. 7 awaiting word from immigration officials.
Pérez Cordova said he is ready to stay inside St. Francis for as long as it takes.
“I have no other choice. If I don’t want to, or if I leave, they catch me and it’s all over. I have to tough it out,” he said.
After spending half his life in the United States, he said returning to Mexico was out of the question, especially for his children.
“I don’t want my kids to be like me, I want them to be something in life. If they toss me out, what’s going to happen? Over there they won’t have the opportunity they have here. Here if you work, you can give them a better life.”