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City Council Supports Springfield Church Providing Sanctuary To Woman Facing Deportation


  The City Council in Springfield, Massachusetts has approved an order directing the city not to interfere with places of worship providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.  The city’s mayor has declared Springfield is not a “sanctuary city.” 

   With an overflow audience in the council chambers, the Springfield City Council voted 13-0 Monday night to pass the order directing there be no interference with the sanctuary movement in the city  and specifically supporting the South Congregational Church where a woman facing deportation to Peru took up residence just over two weeks ago.

    The end of the roll-call vote was greeted with cheers and applause.

    Mayor Domenic Sarno ordered city officials to inspect the historic church on Maple Street. The inspection last week turned up only minor safety code violations in the second floor two-bedroom apartment where Gisella Collazo is living with her two American-born children.

   Although the risk of eviction at the hands of city agents had passed, City Council President Orlando Ramos said it was important for the council to be on record on the sanctuary issue.

   " I think common sense prevailed tonight, " said Ramos. " We had a good healthy debate on this and came to the conclusion that the administration should never have gotten involved in this issue and they overstepped their authority."

   To obtain the unanimous support of the council, the author of the proposed order, City Councilor Tim Ryan, agreed to strike language that some councilors believed might lead to punishment of city employees for simply doing their jobs.

   " It took out what people felt was divisive. It still has the message that we are going to respect the religious freedom and purpose of the church," said Ryan. " Underlying this is that we are in support of this lady and this tragic situation."

    Prior to the vote, Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, the senior pastor at South Congregational, addressed the council.  He quoted the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty that welcomes immigrants to America and he said providing sanctuary to Collazo is an act of faith.

   " You, all of you, are invited to join us as we form a community of welcome and of light," Gerstenlauer said.

   Members of the Springfield Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition have organized to support Collazo and her two children, ages 4 and 10, to allow them to continue residing in the church for as long as it takes to resolve her legal status.

    Mayor Sarno has stated he will “not stand for harboring and protecting” undocumented immigrants.  In addition to ordering an inspection of the church, the mayor also called for a review of its tax-exempt status.

     The council’s order is a strong counterpoint to Sarno’s anti-sanctuary movement rhetoric, said  Tara Parrish, director of the Pioneer Valley Project.

     " As far as we know, a mayor has never come out publicly, especially a Democratic mayor, and opposed the concept of sanctuary in the community where he or she is mayor," said Parrish. " So  what it does is affirm the work of these faith communities and their commitment to exercising their faith."

     Three churches in western Massachusetts are currently providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. 

     Lucio Perez has lived for six months now at the First Congregational Church in Amherst.  On Friday night, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center announced that a woman facing deportation back to Russia had been given sanctuary at the Unitarian Society in Northampton.



The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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