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Mayor Calls for Crackdown on Sanctuary Church

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The mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, is calling for a church providing sanctuary to an illegal immigrant and her two children to be inspected for housing violations and is seeking to have the house of worship stripped of its tax-exempt status.  

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, who sent the instructions via email to several city departments, has often criticized the resettlement of refugees in Springfield, saying the practice concentrates “poverty on top of poverty,” with low income people added to low-income areas.  year he told resettlement agencies “enough is enough.”

Springfield-based activist group Pioneer Valley Project announced Monday that the Springfield Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition would be informing U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials that Gisella Collazo, an illegal Peruvian immigrant, is seeking sanctuary with her two children at the South Congregational United Church of Christ.

“At South Congregational United Church of Christ we understand that we are called upon to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger among us,” the Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, the Springfield-based church’s senior minister, said in a statement. “We stand with Gisella as an act of faith in the face of injustice, and as partners in building the beloved community of God.”

It is the first family taking sanctuary in Springfield.

Collazo came to the U.S. in 2001, married an American citizen and had two children. She was told that she had until Tuesday to return to Peru.

An ICE spokesman said the woman entered the U.S. illegally on a fraudulent passport and was granted voluntary departure by a judge in 2012. She agreed to voluntarily leave the U.S. after multiple appeals were denied. The Springfield Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition said she had difficulty changing her status due to “multiple legal errors.”

Mayor Sarno has previously said that Springfield is not a so-called sanctuary city, referring to communities where police departments do not assist federal agencies in detaining and deporting selected undocumented immigrants.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents seeking undocumented immigrants are encouraged not to conduct enforcement actions at “sensitive locations” unless there are extenuating circumstances, there has been some other law enforcement action at the location, or if agents are invited onto the location by designated official.

Sensitive locations are defined as schools or houses of worship.

The Pioneer Valley Project estimates that Springfield is home to between 5,000 and 6,000 undocumented residents.

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Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.