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.
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.
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.
Laura (also a pseudonym), lying next to Marjorie, says she's not religious. Laura is a young woman active in a variety of leftist political causes around Tucson. Most recently, she joined a sit-in at Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini's office because he voted to fund the ``contras'' fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. To Laura, sanctuary is a good way, but one of many, that people can mobilize to stop the killing in Central America.
It may seem odd that people with opposite views are found risking their hides together, but that's the nature of sanctuary. It's a movement of contradictions: conservative, churchgoing Americans doing things their government considers illegal, clergy engaging in ``subversive activities,'' aiding the suffering who are seen as a threat to US foreign policy. No wonder sanctuary is hard to categorize, existing as it does in the gray area where both humanitarian and political motives are present.
Currently, a debate is raging within the movement itself. Some sanctuary activists want to organize around a specific goal, that of ending US intervention in Central America. Others are stubbornly resisting politicization. As a result, even as it's gaining momentum, the sanctuary movement may be splitting into two camps.
Those who seek to avoid labels have found an advocate in Jim Corbett, the retired rancher who began the underground railroad for Central Americans in 1981. Corbett, a Quaker and one of the 16 indicted, has written many philosophical tracts on sanctuary over the years. In them he has resisted naming goals or purposes for the movement. Sanctuary -- as Jim Corbett defines it -- exists to care for refugees, period. Should political change come about as a result of helping them, fine, but to establish sanctu ary on a defined platform, such as ending US intervention in Central America, in Corbett's view would reduce it to the level of just another political pressure group.
Corbett's insistence that sanctuary is simply a response to suffering is not just expedient or tactical. He genuinely believes that sanctuary can be an alternative to political power. Corbett's wife, Pat, put it best last year, in her acceptance speech on behalf of the sanctuary movement for the 1984 Letelier-Moffitt Memorial Human Rights Award of the Institute for Policy Studies.
She said: ``Sanctuary is independent of traditional political activism because the covenant people [the term Corbett uses to indicate that those who give sanctuary carry on the Biblical covenant between God and His people] is formed by creative service rather than competitive struggle. As a result, the movement is politically as well as religiously ecumenical. . . .''
Corbett's position rankles Renny Golden, a former nun who has co-written a book on sanctuary to be published soon by Orbis Books. ``It's simply not true that sanctuary transcends the political,'' Golden says. ``We have a responsibility not to take what could be the most beautiful position -- what could be possible in other worlds -- but to do what is historically possible.''
Golden is a founding member of the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, a group that best represents Corbett's opposition within the movement. According to its newsletter Basta! (Spanish for Enough!), the task force was formed in January 1981 to ``organize people of all religious persuasions to understand and challenge US foreign policy towards Central America.'' The task force got involved in sanctuary at Corbett's request, as a refugee placement coordinator in September 1982. Since then, a
series of disagreements over policy and direction has resulted in a schism between Tucson and Chicago.
In its newsletter and elsewhere, the Chicago group has said that it believes sanctuary should be organized around the goal of ending US intervention in Central America. Anything short of that is a ``humanitarian band-aid.'' Through sanctuary, churches can be brought around to a more radical point of view, it says, but the Chicago group has no use for a church that offers sanctuary and then ``continues its support [by silence or vote] for US policies in Central America.''
The Chicago group recognizes that the number of refugees who have actually been helped by the movement is small (at most 3,000) compared with the numbers here and south of the border who need help. For that reasons, they see sanctuary as primarily symbolic -- a gesture of solidarity with the refugees as well as a way to increase public awarneness about the situation. Renny Golden says the refugees in sanctuary are spokesmen for ``a people in a liberation struggle.''
Sanctuary workers in Tucson think that view has hampered Chicago's ability to act as a coordinator for refugee placement. In December 1983 the Chicago task force sent a letter to the Tucson Ecumenical Council Task Force on Central America saying that only refugees who were going to a public sanctuary should be allowed to use the underground railroad. In response, the Tucson group sent a letter that asserted its intention to help refugees ``regardless of the political origins of their persecution or thei r usefulness in promoting preconceived political purposes.''
Counselors in Tucson say that only about one in 20 refugees wants to go live in a church sanctuary and be a public spokesman. Most prefer to join their families or go to cities with large Central American communities, such as Los Angeles or Houston. Many are too frightened to make themselves available to the media. In any case, once a refugee has been screened in Mexico and determined to be at risk there and in his home country, the railroad helps him get where he wants to go.
After the disagreement over the railroad, Tucson's relationship with Chicago deteriorated. The low point came in October 1984, when the Chicago group refused to share with Tucson its mailing list of the network. At that time, Chicago had the only complete list, and, after repeated requests from the Tucson group (which wanted the list both to place refugees and to set up a symposium it was planning), Chicago decided not to release it.
The Tucson group took Chicago's refusal as an attempt to take over the movement. Corbett fired off a letter, published in the January 1985 Basta!, that said he was proud to be the first heretic excommunicated from the ``Chicago Creed.'' The mailing list, in Corbett's view, was a ``litmus test'' that Chicago failed. Saying he did not want to get involved in an organizational struggle, Corbett also announced he was resigning from the Tucson group's board and withdrawing from a public role in the sanctuary
movement. He hasn't, however, withdrawn completely. Journalists still seek him out; Corbett is too well known to withdraw, even if he wanted to.
In recent months, the ideological split in the movement has shifted from Jim Corbett vs. Chicago to Jim Corbett vs. the National Sanctuary Movement. This time, the question is how (and whether) sanctuary should be organized. Last spring, a gathering of 200 people from around the country formed the National Communications Council (NCC), a 12-member body intended to give the movement some focus and direction. The council has no policymaking powers, and it is unclear how representative it is of all the san ctuary congregations, since many did not even know the meeting was being held. The NCC has joined the National Sanctuary Defense Fund (NSDF), an independent San Francisco-based fund-raising organization created in the summer of 1984, to form a third group, the National Sanctuary Movement.
Predictably Corbett and most of the Tucson group are not part of the National Sanctuary Movement. Corbett is all in favor of ``horizontal'' organization of sanctuary sites, that is, a network where no one group or individual has power over any other. But as a Quaker, he believes that a hierarchical power structure like the NCC subjugates the will of the minority to that of the majority, and is thus inherently violent.
But not only Quakers are wary of the National Sanctuary Movement. Tucson minister John Fife has worked in the hierarchical organization of the Presbyterian Church for most of his life, so he is not opposed on principle. He is concerned, though, about people making statements and directives for what is essentially an informal collection of faith communities. Mostly, he and Corbett don't want the ``Chicago Creed'' (the idea that the purpose of sanctuary is to end US intervention in Central America) ident ified in the public mind as in the goal of the entire movement.
The result of all this has been the almost two-track development of the sanctuary movement. On one level, sanctuary is big business. The NSDF has, so far, put out two mailings and raised well over half a million dollars for legal defenses. It's also hired a Washington, D.C., public relations firm that created a ``sanctuary media packet.'' The Chicago task force and other national groups organize caravans, demonstrations, and speeches.
At the same time, the chronically underfunded, unglamorous day-to-day work with the refugees goes on.
Arguably both parts of the sanctury movement are necessary. But Corbett worries that emphasis on public actions -- including his own trial -- takes attention and resources from the needs of the refugees.
He wants the movement to get back into ``affirmative filing,'' a process by which a person who has entered the country ``without inspection'' can go into an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office, apply for political asylum, and be released on his own reconizance. This was the practice among Tucson sanctuary workers until June 1981, when the INS abruptbly changed its policy and arrested two Salvadoreans Corbett had brought in to file for asylum. But a Texas court and two Arizona immigration
officials have recently stated that sanctuary workers and refugees would not be arrested if they were on their way to apply for asylum.
Corbett also hopes that the sanctuary movement will succeed in influencing Congress to grant extended voluntary departure status to Salvadoreans.
In this respect as well, the Chicago task force takes a different view. ``What Jim [Corbett] doesn't realize is, we cannot get ourselves legitimized or win in the courts,'' Golden says. ``The North American church must choose sides,'' Golden has written. ``Either it stands with the United States government or it stands with the refugees.''
Ironically, Jim Corbett wrote a sentence similar to that when he first started helping refugees to enter the country and hide from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. ``We can serve the Kingdom of Love or the Kingdom of Money, but we cannot serve both,'' he wrote. The difference is, Corbett believes, that subjugating sanctuary to a political goal -- no matter how valuable -- places it back in the coercive, power-serving world. Sanctuary cannot propose answers for Central America. The only answer
is for each community to become a sanctuary -- to live, here and now, as a ``Kingdom of Love.''
The opposing points of view haven't paralyzed the work of sanctuary volunteers. The women at the fence finally hear a shout from the other side two hours after sitting down. They jump up to greet an American couple -- fellow sanctuary workers -- and the four Salvadoreans with them. The refugees offer their goodbyes and thanks; then they climb through the barbed wire that separates the two countries. Marjorie and Laura welcome the three women and the teen-age boy with hugs. The refugees smile, but they a re flushed and nervous.
Together, the refugees and their new guides start toward the road. Laura scans the sky and the rocky hillside, looking for a plane, a car, or people. Everyone must be ready to run for cover in an instant. Marjorie and Laura exchange glances. They may not agree on everything, but they know that helping these lost, desperate people is what sanctuary's all about.