US group sidesteps immigration laws to aid Salvadorans

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A small band of church people in the United States is offering sanctuary to all undocumented Central American refugees in defiance of US immigration law.

''The church is to serve those who are the most oppressed and most in danger, '' says the Rev. John Fife, pastor of Southside United Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, Ariz., one of four churches nationwide participating in the action.

Southside is providing sanctuary for a family of Salvadoran refugees who say they face torture or death if they return to El Salvador, where more than 30,000 civilians have been killed or have disappeared since 1979.

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Harboring an undocumented alien is a felony under US law, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and five years imprisonment for each alien sheltered. Although the tradition of church sanctuary dates back to Biblical times, the US doesn't recognize sanctuary as a protection from prosecution.

Supporters say the action was taken to dramatize US immigration policy, under which about 400 Salvadorans a month are deported.

The United Nations insists Salvadorans qualify for political asylum under terms of an international treaty signed by the US. But the US maintains the majority of Salvadorans are here for economic reasons and approved only two Salvadoran requests for asylum last year.

Studies by the UN, Oxfam-America, and the National Lawyers Guild-National Council of Churches, charge the US is deporting Salvadorans as quickly as possible, often in violation of their constitutional rights.

The sanctuary action grew out of a small but active underground railroad for Central American refugees, which has been operating for almost a year out of Tucson. The loose network has provided transportation, safe houses, food, and support for about 200 undocumented Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Railroad contacts -- primarily other church leaders and religiously motivated citizens -- extend throughout the US and as far south as the Mexican-Guatemalan border.

''We wanted to publicly say 'Yes, we're willing to break the law because the law is immoral,' '' the Reverend Fife says. The group made public its civil disobedience and proclaimed sanctuary on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, a critic of government violence who was slain as he celebrated mass on March 24, 1980.

Thus far, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Border Patrol haven't acted against any churches or individuals involved in sanctuary, although they don't rule out action in the future. William Johnston, head of the Tucson INS office, notes that the numbers involved in the sanctuary action and underground railroad are miniscule compared with the number of Salvadorans and Guatemalans apprehended each month - a total of 16,000 nationwide last year.

As to the immorality of immigration law, Mr. Johnston says that is for the courts and lawmakers to decide. Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to extend voluntary departure status for Salvadorans, which would allow them to remain in the US until the situation in El Salvador stabilizes.

But with the turmoil fomented by recent elections in El Salvador and Guatemala, stability is still far off, say sanctuary supporters.

Other churches participating in the sanctuary program are University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, Calif.; First Unitarian Universalist Church in Los Angeles, and Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. Ecumenical support is coming from a number of organizations, including the United Presbyterian Church in the US, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Social Justice Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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