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Sanctuary movement under fire The growing four-year-old movement among church groups that offer illegal asylum to Central American refugees faces two new challenges. Philosophical differences threaten to divide the group into political and religious camps, and federal indictments based on a government infiltrator's tapes are bringing 11 key members to trial today in Tucson, Ariz.

By Miriam DavidsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1985

Tucson, Ariz.

NOT 10 feet from the barbed-wire fence two women sit under a tree having lunch. They share cheese, crackers, and an orange and pass a canteen of lukewarm water back and forth. All the while they watch the mesquite bushes on the Mexican side of the fence. The women talk -- and wait. The people they are supposed to meet are late. It doesn't matter, though. Both are experienced border crossers who know in this business anything can happen.

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These women are in the business of sanctuary -- a four-year-old movement among American churches to shelter and transport Central American refugees. Sanctuary activists insist that the people they help are either bona fide political refugees -- people facing death or torture because of their beliefs -- or refugees fleeing a war zone, and so are entitled to at least temporary asylum in this country.

The government disagrees, saying that the refugees come for economic, not political, reasons and therefore cannot stay. With very few exceptions, Salvadoreans or Guatemalans who encounter the border patrol are deported.

Since war broke out in El Salvador in 1980, almost one-third of that country's 5 million people have become refugees. It is estimated that half a million of these live in the United States, most without legal status. Another 200,000 live in Mexico, where their presence is also illegal.

The US Congress has been slow to act on resolving the problem. The DeConcini-Moakley bill, meant to give Salvadoreans already here extended voluntary departure status (which would allow them to stay in this country until hostilities in their own country ceased), is stalled as the Senate Judiciary Committee waits for the Justice Department to review it. Meanwhile, more and more churches sign up to give sanctuary -- some 225 at last count, representing nearly 30 Protestant denominations as well as Roman C atholic and Jewish groups.

The Justice Department is in no rush to help put the DeConcini-Moakley bill into law, since it is in the middle of the government's first systematic prosecution of sanctuary workers. The movement has operated more or less openly since March 24, 1982 (the day when one church in Tucson and four in the San Francisco Bay Area first announced they were giving sanctuary).

During the summer of 1984, an informant named Jesus Cruz posed as a sanctuary supporter and secretly recorded church meetings around Tucson and Phoenix. Based on the information that Cruz collected, the Justice Department last January indicted 16 people, many of them founders of the movement. Eleven will stand trial here in Tucson, with proceedings scheduled to begin today.

Despite the crackdown, sanctuary work goes on. The two women at the fence are part of an underground railroad that can move the refugees all the way from a camp in southern Mexico to a church in Boston, provided they don't get caught in between. These women are making just one leg of the trip -- from the fence to Tucson -- but in many ways, it is the most dangerous part. Not only do they have to look out for the border patrol; they risk stumbling across drug smugglers who carry guns and aren't afr aid to use them.

What kind of people volunteer for such a job? Sanctuary activists generally share respect for life and a willingness to lay their own on the line, but beyond that they all have their own motivations. These two, for example, offer very different reasons for their involvement.

Gray-haired Marjorie (a pseudonym) says she is here because she believes that God calls us to care for the neediest and most despised in our midst. A widow, a registered Republican, and a churchgoing Presbyterian, Marjorie doesn't consider herself political. In fact, she worries about ``that element'' taking over the movement.