Police arrest man who was seeking sanctuary in Portland church

PORTLAND, Ore. An immigrant activist who avoided deportation by seeking sanctuary in a Portland church was arrested on federal charges of illegal reentry Thursday morning after a court appearance.

Francisco Aguirre, a community activist who first came to the U.S. from El Salvador nearly two decades ago, was at the Clackamas County Circuit Court to settle a DUI case.

He was deported 15 years ago after a drug trafficking conviction, authorities said. He then unlawfully reentered the country.

Aguirre came to the attention of immigration authorities in August after he was arrested for driving under the influence. Records show the 35-year-old was indicted by a grand jury at the end of September on the illegal re-entry charge.

Supporters met Aguirre at the circuit court when he showed up for his DUI appearance. He was later put in handcuffs on the prior indictment.

His case marks the first time in recent years that an immigrant has been granted sanctuary inside an Oregon church.

The congregation of Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland gave Aguirre sanctuary an interfaith service in support of Aguirre Tuesday, Sept. 30.

Supporters are holding a vigil for Aguirre Thursday afternoon outside Department of Justice's Portland office.

Aguirre, 35, is now the coordinator of the Voz Workers' Rights Education Project, a Portland nonprofit that runs a day labor center. He's a well-known immigrant rights organizer and a musician who performs songs about social justice and has two children who are American citizens.

His immigration lawyer Stephen Manning says Aguirre is in the process of obtaining a U-visa, a special document for crime victims who help authorities investigate or prosecute cases.

Aguirre says he first entered the U.S. illegally in 1995. He worked as a day laborer and helped found the nonprofit group that operates the day labor center. Aguirre also runs a computer repair business from his home.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Aguirre was deported to El Salvador in 2000 following a conviction for drug trafficking offenses. He then unlawfully re-entered the country, spokesman Andrew Munoz said in a statement.

Due to his criminal history, previous deportation and most recent DUI charge, Aguirre is considered a public safety threat and a priority for removal by ICE, Munoz said.

Aguirre disputes the criminal prosecutions and says he was innocent, but a lawyer told him to plead no contest, a decision he now regrets.

The court documents could not be acquired; a court clerk said the case was so old the files have been stored in a warehouse.

Aguirre took refuge at the church after immigration officials sought to arrest him Sept. 19 at his home in Fairview, a suburb of Portland. He says they couldn't provide a warrant and left after he refused to come outside.

The 900-member Augustana Lutheran Church is one of several dozen churches in Oregon that are part of the sanctuary movement and have pledged to give refuge to immigrants living in the country illegally.

"A church is a place without borders," said the church's pastor, Mark Knutson. "'It allows people to be and to sort things out ... without guns, without coercion."

The group Unidos Con Francisco (Spanish for United With Francisco) is holding a vigil at 4 p.m. Thursday to protest Aguirre's arrest. Community members will meet outside the U.S. Department of Justice of Oregon Office.

Statement from Unidos Con Francisco:

This morning, the beloved community leader who took to sanctuary at Augustana Lutheran Church nearly two months ago after agents sought him out, was arrested on a warrant for "illegal reentry" issued through collaboration between the US District Attorney's Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

During the past decade, as reform has stalled, churches around the country have offered refuge to immigrants who lack legal status.

Experts estimate about 300 congregations nationwide are willing and ready to give sanctuary to such immigrants. Immigration officials generally do not arrest people inside churches and other places of worship.


The Associated Press contributed to this article