Community Activist Emerges from Sanctuary, Feds Move in to Arrest

Aguirre 1

Story and photos by Pete Shaw

Francisco Aguirre, the community leader and immigrant justice activist who has been taking sanctuary in Augustana Lutheran Church since September 19, was arrested yesterday. Aguirre was taken into custody inside the Clackamas County Courthouse on a warrant for “illegal entry”, issued through collaboration between the US Attorney’s Office of Oregon and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The charge reaches back to Aguirre’s deportation to his home country of El Salvador 15 years ago.

Aguirre originally fled El Salvador for the US because of the violence engendered by US foreign policy, particularly its support of right-wing paramilitary groups during the Dirty Wars of the 1980s. He later returned to the US and began organizing day laborers, including helping found the VOZ Workers Rights Education Project. Prior to his taking sanctuary he was working with VOZ as the coordinator of the Martin Luther King Jr Worker Center.

Aguirre was appearing in court to answer to an August charge of driving under the influence, a charge to which he plead guilty. He arrived at the courthouse accompanied by a busload of over 40 advocates who, according to one supporter, were “extending the sacred space” of Augustana Lutheran Church. They entered the courthouse with Aguirre, but their presence did not stop federal agents from arresting him.

“Since he took sanctuary, Francisco has been surrounded by love and an outpouring of support from the Mayor to the day laborers whose rights he’s defended,” said Romeo Sosa, Executive Director of VOZ. “Instead of honoring his place in our community, ICE looked for a backdoor way to put him in detention and found it with the US district attorney. Of all the things to pursue in the state of Oregon, a labor leader shouldn’t be one of them.”

Aguirre’s arrest comes on the heels of the Democratic Party taking a savage beating in Tuesday’s midterm elections. While President Obama constantly talked about taking executive action to alleviate the pain of families and communities being torn apart by deportations, in the end he did nothing out of fear, some say, that such action could cost at the polls. Ironically, his empty promises may have come back to haunt the Democrats, as it appears Latino voter turnout was low. Exits polls, however, reveal that a majority of voters support stopping deportations and creating a “path to citizenship” for people without documentation.

Under Obama’s watch, ICE has been deporting people without documentation at an unprecedented rate, and the number of people deported during the past 6 years easily tops 2 million. However, ICE’s strategy of requesting that  local law enforcement agencies honor its detainer requests recently hit a snag as community activism and court decisions made it unfeasible for sheriff’s departments around the country to fulfill those petitions. ICE has recently taken an approach of “targeted enforcement”, a strategy that often finds ICE subverting the US justice system while still terrorizing immigrant communities.

Aguirre has been applying for a U-Visa which is available to immigrants who are victims of serious crimes and who have cooperated with authorities in prosecuting the crime. With his arrest, it is unknown if his application will be allowed to proceed.



After Aguirre’s arrest, a rally was held at 4 pm outside the Federal Courthouse in Portland. Seventy-five people from numerous religious and faith congregations, activist groups such as the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, Jobs with Justice, and 15 Now PDX, and even the Alberta Street Co-op came out demanding Aguirre be released and that Obama reign in ICE and end all deportations immediately.

Tania Unzueta of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) told the crowd that for weeks Aguirre’s wife, Dora, had been calling government offices, asking about Aguirre’s status. They were consistently told there was no warrant for his arrest, but this was a lie. The warrant for Aguirre’s arrest was dated ten days after his September encounter with ICE agents who tried to trick him into leaving his house so they could arrest him.

For years now, ICE has been bombarding the public with propaganda that all immigrants–understood to mean all immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America–are dangerous felons who only want to deal drugs, rape, and murder. In reality, about 80% of those people taken in by ICE are not guilty of such crimes, and most of their infractions are on the level of a traffic violation. ICE’s propaganda would have people believe it is protecting them, but that clearly is nonsense.

What is also becoming clear to some is how the justice system works in this country. “We’ve realized our courts are becoming migra (a slang term for ICE or other immigration law enforcement agencies) courts,” said Romeo Sosa of VOZ. “Our local law enforcement is becoming poli-migra (police and ICE). Officers are collaborating with ICE, and today it’s very clear that that collaboration is caught.”

The microphone was then turned over to Aguirre who called from prison. He asked his supporters to stay strong and announced that he was starting a hunger strike. “Right now,” he said, “I feel like a political prisoner. This shouldn’t be happening in the United States because we are supposed to be promoting freedom, but that freedom has been taken from me now.”

Want to get involved? Call US Attorney Amanda Marshall at (503) 727-1000 and demand that she drop all charges against Francisco Aguirre and free him immediately.

Come support Aguirre at his hearing today at 12:30 pm in the Federal Courthouse at 1000 SW Third Avenue in downtown Portland.

For more information see the website for United with Francisco at:

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