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Immigrant who hid in Oregon church gains support

Published:Friday | September 26, 2014 | 9:00 AM
In this September 19, 2014 photo, while surrounded by a group of supporters, Francisco Aguirre speaks in Portland, Oregon. Aguirre, who has lived illegally in the United States (US) for 19 years and has two children who are American citizens, is facing deportation due to a drug trafficking conviction 15 years ago and a previous deportation, authorities say. - AP
Francisco Aguirre
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OREGON (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, as 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 US 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 US citizen children and is now the coordinator of a Portland non-profit organisation that runs a day labour centre, disputes the criminal prosecution on drug-dealing charges 15 years ago and says he was innocent.

Vowed to stay in Church

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 labour and immigrant rights organiser 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.

Small-time drug dealing

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.