Immigrant who hid in Oregon church gains support

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — As an immigrant activist's stay at an Oregon church to avoid deportation nears a week, he's gaining supporters, including Portland's mayor, and the church plans a rally for him.

But court documents reveal more details about the troubled past of Francisco Aguirre, 35, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador nearly two decades ago and is facing removal to his native country because of an old drug conviction and a previous deportation.

Aguirre — who has two U.S. citizen children and is now the coordinator of a Portland nonprofit that runs a day labor center — disputes the criminal prosecution on drug-dealing charges 15 years ago and says he was innocent.

He has vowed to remain at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland until he's able to resolve his immigration case. In recent years, as immigration reform has stalled, churches around the country have offered sanctuary to immigrants who lack legal status because federal officials generally don't make arrests at sensitive locations such as churches.

"I'm a part of this community, and this is where I belong," Aguirre said.

Portland-area churches and local leaders support Aguirre, pointing to his contributions during the past decade as a labor and immigrant rights' organizer and a family man.

"Francisco Aguirre has been a community leader in Portland and an important voice on issues of equity and immigrant rights ... I believe Francisco should remain in the United States, and in Portland, until his case can reach a humane conclusion," Mayor Charlie Hales said in a statement.

Court records show that in the final month of 1998, Aguirre, then 19, was involved in small-time drug dealing in Portland. Police surveillance reports and a search-warrant affidavit describe Aguirre selling cocaine and heroin to undercover police officers on multiple occasions. The records also show police observing Aguirre selling or offering to sell drugs.

After Aguirre and two other men were arrested, Aguirre was charged with 20 counts of delivery and possession of a controlled substance. In July 1999, most of the counts were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to two counts of delivery of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years of probation. Aguirre later changed his plea to no contest.

Aguirre said the evidence against him was fabricated and is untrue. He offered a place to stay to two homeless men who brought the drugs with them to his apartment, he said.

He received bad advice from a lawyer, and he couldn't defend himself because he didn't know his rights and didn't speak English, Aguirre said.

His immigration lawyer, Stephen Manning, said Aguirre is in the process of obtaining a U-visa, a special document for violent-crime victims who help authorities investigate or prosecute cases. Manning declined to talk about the circumstances surrounding the U-visa petition.

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.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Aguirre to El Salvador in 2000 after his drug conviction. He then unlawfully re-entered the country, spokesman Andrew Munoz said in a statement.

Aguirre came to the attention of immigration authorities in August after his arrest for driving under the influence.

The churches and organizations that have rallied around Aguirre say they'll continue to stand behind him.

"Francisco has contributed a lot to this community," said Marco Mejia, an organizer with Portland Jobs with Justice, a workers' rights group.

The pastor of the 900-member church that's offering Aguirre refuge — including a room to sleep in the church's basement — also says the court documents change nothing.

"I'm not convinced he had justice in his case and want to presume his innocence," Pastor Mark Knutson said. "But even if he did get in trouble with the law, are we a society that labels people for life as a criminal? Do we not forgive?"

The church is one of more than 30 congregations in Oregon that are part of the sanctuary movement and have pledged to give refuge to immigrants living in the country illegally.

Experts estimate about 300 congregations nationwide are willing and ready to take in such immigrants. This year, at least three immigrants have taken sanctuary in churches in Arizona and one in a church in Chicago.

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