Tucson, Ariz. — More and more American church congregations are giving sanctuary to illegal Salvadorean emigres - putting the churches publicly at odds with United States law.
The sanctuary movement - which now counts its numbers at more than 150 churches - is a humanitarian move to protect Salvadoreans from deportation to their embattled homeland as well as a political gesture aimed at influencing US policies.
As it has grown, the movement has developed what it calls an ''underground railroad'' to help smuggle Salvadoreans and Guatemalans from the Guatemala-Mexico border to northern Mexico, across the border into Arizona or Texas, and into the keeping of sanctuary churches all over the country.
It took more than two years for the first 100 congregations to join the sanctuary movement, which was initiated here at Southside Presbyterian Church in early 1982. But after three separate arrests this spring of church workers for transporting Salvadorean illegals, the movement has already grown by 50 more congregations.
At Southside, the Rev. John Fife says that since the arrest in late March of Phil Conger, director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council's Task Force on Central America, the movement has fairly blossomed:
The number of volunteers to help harbor the Salvadoreans has grown by 50 percent, financial contributions have doubled, and 11 other Tucson churches have joined Southside as sanctuaries, he says.
Once in Tucson, the Central Americans contact friends or relatives already in the country and immerse themselves in the large Central American communities in Los Angeles or Washington.
Others want to go public with their experiences. They join a network coordinated by the Chicago Religious Task Force. They are sent, if they wish, to sanctuary churches somewhere in the US where they can tell their stories to their adopted congregations, and perhaps to the larger American public.
''We feel strongly that if the American public understands what's going on (as a result of US policy in Central America), then they won't stand for it,'' says Mr. Conger, whose hearings began this month on several charges relating to transporting illegal aliens.
A Texas sanctuary worker, Stacey Lynn Merkt, was convicted of similar charges in June and sentenced to two years' probation. The third arrest this spring was of Jack Elder, director of a refugee center in San Benito, Texas, where Miss Merkt works. Mr. Elder is also charged with transporting aliens.
The sanctuary movement began here as a humanitarian mission. It quickly became a political mission as well. The Central Americans appearing in southern Arizona needed help, including legal help and bond money so as not to be sent back to Central America while they applied for political asylum here.
But efforts to secure at least temporary haven for these people were frustrated. Although political asylum is granted to some Salvadoreans - 311 so far this year - a very small portion of them meet the strict criteria for proving a ''well-founded fear of persecution'' in their home country. So they are returned.
Salvadoreans live in a dangerous society, immigration officials say, but there is scant evidence that many face direct persecution when they are sent back. And many who are indeed political refugees, according to immigration spokesmen, flee first to Mexico and later migrate into the US because they need work.
Sanctuary leaders have found the dangers Salvadoreans face to be more compelling than have immigration officials and US courts. Initially they wrote to congressmen, to President Reagan, to the attorney general, but ''over time,'' says Mr. Conger, ''we began to see there was no justice for Central Americans.''
So church elders at Southside Presbyterian - an austere, blue-and-white stucco edifice on a desert lot in a poor part of town - decided that by offering a safe public platform in churches for those who want to speak out, they can help force change in US administration policy.
They would change US policy in El Salvador, and, until then, stop deportation of Salvadoreans to their homeland.
Americans are involved in the movement at various levels of legality. Not all those levels are clear cut. The government has yet to force a test of the basic concept of church sanctuary, which has no stated legal force in American law.
But transporting illegal aliens, counseling them on how to cross the border, and picking them up on the other side - these are definitely against the law, and sanctuary volunteers do all this.
''The church is not outside the law in this country,'' says Duke Austin, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, adding that church people can no more legally shelter illegal aliens than drug dealers or any other suspected criminal.
The Rev. Mr. Fife, a lean, lanky man with a gray beard, wearing jeans and cowboy boots at his desk cluttered with papers, rejects the notion that sanctuary workers choose between civil disobedience and respect for the law.
''Publicly saying what we're doing does not show disrespect for the law. ... It says that we're willing to take the matter to court and make our case. We think it's legal.''
It is the American government, Mr. Fife says, that is engaged in a ''massive civil disobedience'' of international law, specifically United Nations treaties regarding the treatment of refugees.
The ''underground railroad'' for smuggling Central Americans north began with a Tucson Quaker, Jim Corbett, in 1981. He was meeting them on the Mexican side of the border, counseling them on how to cross, picking them up in the US, and taking them to a safe house - beginning with his own.
When he ran out of room, he asked The Rev. Fife at Southside Presbyterian for help from the church. ''That was kind of a breakover point for me and the congregation,'' Fife says. ''Could we keep people who had clearly crossed the border, as they say, without inspection?''
The elders voted unanimously to do so, and when the church decided to make its posture public a few months later, four other churches decided to become public sanctuaries at the same time - a Unitarian church in Los Angeles, a Lutheran church in Berkeley, Calif., another Lutheran church in the District of Columbia, and a fundamentalist Bible church on Long Island in New York.
The network begun by Jim Corbett now has contacts extending to Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemala border. Mr. Corbett, in fact, spent much of this month in southern Mexico making arrangements for Central Americans.
A Salvadorean family that recently arrived in Tucson first heard of the sanctuary movement in southern Mexico. Francisco, who withholds his surname, was a medical student in San Salvador when his university was closed in 1981. Because he worked in clinics that treated guerrillas, he says, national police dressed in civilian clothes came to his house one night and arrested his entire family.
They were separated, three children from their mother, for about two weeks, then released. But Francisco was tortured and imprisoned for 10 months. When he was released by a judge he made a payment to, the judge recommended he leave the country within a month. He did, and in Mexico City he sought out sanctuary contacts chiefly because he wanted to tell the American religious community what happened to him and his family. He believes his country's travail is linked to US support of government police forces.
For Francisco's family of six, the movement bought plane tickets to Sonora, Mexico, helped them cross the border into Arizona, and put them up in an empty custodian's apartment at a Tucson church.