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Mayor Orders City Agencies To Crack Down On Church Housing Undocumented Immigrant

        The mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts is threatening the tax-exempt status of a church because an undocumented immigrant is being sheltered there. 

        The clash between Mayor Domenic Sarno and immigration-rights activists had been brewing for some time.

        Since last year, Sarno had insisted Springfield would not join the list of cities unwilling to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and the new enforcement efforts under the Trump administration.

         "We are not a sanctuary city. Period. And I am not going to become a sanctuary city" Sarno stated last year.

         Last June when members of the Springfield Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition announced that the South Congregational United Church of Christ would be prepared to house people facing imminent deportation, Sarno warned that such an arrangement would violate building, housing, and sanitary codes.

          So it was not surprising when the mayor reacted sharply to the announcement by coalition members this week that a Springfield woman facing deportation to Peru and separation from her American-born children and husband had taken up residence inside the church.

       " The church has done this in defiance of the edict that we are not a sanctuary city," Sarno said'

        In addition to ordering the city’s inspectional services to check out the church property, Sarno also targeted the church’s exemption from paying city property taxes.

        " Legally I am going to have it reviewed and if they are going to continue to do this they could be under the specter of a taxable property," Sarno said.

         Speaking with reporters, Sarno referenced his parents, who emigrated from Italy, and called on the federal government to “make some decisions” about legal immigration.

       " I hear from a lot of immigrants that they played by the rules and followed all the laws and requirements to come to our beautiful America," said Sarno. " You have to send a message that there is a pathway to American citizenship. That is absolutely key."

         Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, the senior minister at South Congregational, said the decision to offer the church as a place of sanctuary was not motivated by politics.

       "Our faith calls upon us to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger among us," said Gerstenlaur. " Our sense of vigilance is heightened during this most holy week on the Christian calender. We must and we will persist in faith." 

         He said the woman who has taken refuge in the church, whom activists have asked be identified only as Gisella, can stay for as long as it takes for her to obtain legal residency in the United States.

        Tara Parrish, director of the Pioneer Valley Project, said preparations have been made for Gisella to live in the church along with her children, ages 10 and 4.

        " Our coalition has formed teams, so they have taken on different pieces of responsibility related to insuring care for the whole family and their needs," said Parrish.

         South Congregational is the second church in western Massachusetts where an undocumented immigrant has taken up residence.  Lucio Perez has been living in the First Congregational Church in Amherst since last October.

        Sarno has been an outlier among Democratic mayors in Massachusetts when it comes to the immigration debate.   Mayors in places including Boston, Worcester, Northampton, and Holyoke, have openly defied the Trump administration’s threats to punish sanctuary cities.

        Boston Mayor Martin Welch has gone so far as to say he would use City Hall as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

        Springfield City Councilor Adam Gomez, who is a candidate for State Senate, said in a press release that many people he knows have started referring to Sarno as “Mayor Trump.”





Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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