Mother facing deportation finds sanctuary at church: ‘It’s not a house, but I feel like I’m at home’
iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Fitted with an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet, Gisella Collazo says she’s been made to feel like a common criminal, forced to seek sanctuary in a Massachusetts church to avoid immigration authorities who have ordered her deported to her home country of Peru.
She admitted to ABC news she entered the country 17 years ago as an undocumented immigrant, but said she has made a life here, married an American and given birth to two American sons, ages 10 and 4, who don’t understand why their government wants to send their mother nearly 4,000 miles away.
“There’s a lot of fear, anxiety for both my husband and I, but even worse for my kids,” Collazo, 40, told ABC News on Wednesday, a day after she went to the South Congregational United Church of Christ in Springfield to seek sanctuary.
She said she defied an order from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to board a plane to Lima, Peru, on Tuesday, a flight she paid $600 for with her own money, because she couldn’t bear to leave her family behind.
“I think it’s unfair, especially for people like me, who come to this country for a better future and come here to work,” said Collazo, speaking in Spanish with the help of an interpreter.
She said she has worked as a farm laborer and recently as a maintenance worker.
“I understand if it were to be for people who are committing crimes, but at least for me, I don’t think I have done anything,” she said.
Instead of staying with their father, Collazo’s two sons are living with her in a furnished apartment inside the church, but because they are U.S. citizens they are free to leave to go to school and day care.
“My oldest guy, I try to have conversations with him and make him understand what is happening, but he just tells me not to leave him and he just becomes really sad because he doesn’t want me to leave,” Collazo said at the church on Wednesday afternoon. “And my youngest, I don’t have any conversation like that. He doesn’t understand yet.”
Since Collazo began staying at the church, Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno has publicly warned that Springfield is not a sanctuary city and has threatened to take action against the church for harboring Collazo.
“They are in violation of building and housing codes and proper non-taxable use of their property. Our city inspection teams will be notified,” Sarno said in a statement released on Tuesday.
“I am disappointed that they would use and exploit this family in question, but there must be a clear path to American citizenship, whether it’s this case in Springfield or in other parts of our country,” Sarno said. “Being first generation, it’s simply not fair to all those immigrants, including my parents, who played by the rules and followed the legal immigration path into America.”
In an email posted on the city’s website, Sarno instructed city officials to re-inspect the church for “illegal housing aspects” and to “review the process to strip them of their tax exemption status.”
“Please again pursue to the fullest extent of the law,” Sarno wrote in the email.
ABC News requested an interview with Sarno on Wednesday, but his spokeswoman, Marian Sullivan, responded in an email, “The mayor has no comment.”
The Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, senior minister of the South Congregational United Church of Christ, told ABC News he and his congregation are not going to turn their backs on Collazo.
“To be a sanctuary church, basically, it’s an exercise in faith for us,” Gerstenlauer said. “Our core faith values include love for our neighbor and welcoming the strangers among us with as much hospitality as we can muster.”
Gerstenlauer said he has sent word inviting the mayor to “engage directly with me,” but Sarno has not responded.
“I have felt threatened,” Gerstenlauer said. “Is it a threat? I can’t say. But it has felt threatening to people in this congregation.”
He said the mayor’s reaction has only strengthened the church’s desire to help Collazo and anyone else in her situation.
“I would say the one gain that we might realize is to become more convicted in our faith, to become more certain that we are indeed expressing God’s will in this time and in this place,” Gerstenlauer said.
Collazo said she had tried several times to become an American citizen, but that her immigration problems have made it difficult.
She said that for the past five years, she has reported to ICE monthly, and in 2012 was given a stay of deportation after she had already prepared to be deported to Peru and spent $2,000 on plane tickets for her and her oldest son, money she said she was never able to recoup.
“Every month I have to go and check in, and for the last five years, especially the last two years, they’ve been telling me, ‘We’re going to let you know what’s going to happen,'” Collazo said.
ICE officials did not respond to a request from ABC News to comment on Collazo’s case.
Since being elected, President Donald Trump has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration, and ICE has boosted its enforcement of the federal immigration laws.
“Last month, they gave me an ultimatum that I had to go to my country on the 27th [of March],” Collazo said of ICE. “I felt sad, but at the same time, I had the courage to ask the agent to give me more time, to give me more time to prepare. But he said he couldn’t give me more time.”
According to Church World Services, a cooperative ministry of 37 Christian denominations, the number of churches offering undocumented immigrants sanctuary has double to more than 800 since Trump’s election.
Tara Parish of the Pioneer Valley Project, a grassroots group organizing the sanctuary movement in Springfield, estimated there are 5,000 to 6,000 undocumented immigrants living in the Springfield area.
Parish said Collazo contacted her group several weeks ago and they put her in touch with attorneys to review her case.
“We have a process for this. I mean, this is something that’s not done lightly,” Parish said. “This is an individual and a family that is essentially giving up a lot of their freedom to be part of a sanctuary process.”
She said Collazo is the first to seek sanctuary in Springfield, although other churches in Massachusetts and across the nation have taken in undocumented immigrants. Lucio Perez, a Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation, has been holed up at the First Congregational Church of Amherst since October, officials said.
Collazo said she contacted the Pioneer Valley Project after seeing a flyer the group posted in her corner grocery store.
“I left the store; I didn’t pay no mind,” she said of the flyer. “Then something in me said, ‘You gotta go back’ and I went back. Something was telling me to call, and I called.”
She said her accommodations at the church — which include a kitchen, bedroom and living room — are comfortable for her and her children.
“I know it’s not a house, but I feel like I’m at home, I feel like I have a home,” Collazo said. “And the way they are treating me, I feel that I’m with family. They are my family.”
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