PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An immigrant activist who took refuge at an Oregon church more than a month ago to avoid deportation has been arrested on federal charges of illegal re-entry.
Francisco Aguirre, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador nearly two decades ago, was arrested Thursday at the Clackamas County Circuit Court. He was there to settle a DUI case.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Aguirre to El Salvador in 2000 after a drug conviction. He then unlawfully re-entered the country.
Aguirre — who has two children who are U.S. citizens 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. His defense attorney Barbara Gabriela Ghio declined to comment Thursday.
Aguirre took refuge at Augustana Lutheran Church in mid-September after federal immigration agents tried to detain him outside his home. The agents did not have a warrant, so they could not enter his home.
He came to the attention of authorities in August after a DUI arrest. Records show the 35-year-old was indicted by a grand jury at the end of September on the illegal re-entry charge.
Officials with Oregon's U.S. Attorney's office, who prosecuted the case, also declined to comment.
Aguirre is among those who have taken sanctuary in U.S. churches in recent years because authorities generally don't make arrests in places of worship.
Aguirre said 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.
In 1998, Aguirre, then 19, was involved in small-time drug dealing in Portland, selling cocaine and heroin to undercover police officers on multiple occasions, court records show.
In July 1999, 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 has said he received bad advice from a lawyer and couldn't defend himself because he didn't speak English.
Since first seeking refuge at the church in mid-September, Aguirre has gained supporters, including local clergy members, labor leaders, and even the mayor of Portland.
Mayor Charlie Hales issued a statement Thursday in which he called Aguirre "an important voice on the issues of equity and immigration rights."
A court will decide whether Aquirre should be deported, the mayor said, adding that he had "faith that the U.S. Attorney for Oregon will handle this case in a just manner." Still, Hales said, "I do know that our community is better off for having him here, in Oregon, with his family, working hard and paying his taxes, and speaking out on issues that impact our community."
The Aquirre case "is a glaring example" of why comprehensive immigration reform is needed now, the mayor said.
Aguirre's supporters, some of whom showed up in court, said he has become an exemplary labor and immigrant rights' organizer and should be allowed to remain in the U.S. with his family.
Aguirre's immigration lawyer, Stephen Manning, had said Aguirre was in the process of obtaining a U-visa, a special document for violent-crime victims who help authorities investigate or prosecute cases.
Experts estimate about 300 congregations around America are ready to take in immigrants. This year, at least three immigrants have taken sanctuary in churches in Arizona and one in a church in Chicago.