Central American refugees find mixed welcome in south Texas. Economic anxiety partly behind resistance to big church shelter

AT the JC Grocery on the west side of this Texas border town, dollar bills and silver change pile up in a jar sitting prominently on the counter. The only hint of the collection's purpose is a sticker that carries a drawing of a house with a slash through it next to the words ``Casa Romero No!'' ``We're trying to raise some money to help stop this thing,'' says Bertha Garcia, whose store is a few blocks from where the Roman Catholic Church proposes to build a shelter for Central Americans seeking refuge in the United States. ``I have nothing against these people,'' she adds, ``but it's getting to be like a snowball rolling downhill. It keeps getting bigger and bigger, and it has to stop somewhere. I'm just saying, not here.''

The church will probably build its shelter, having been granted permits by the Cameron County Commission to locate the facility on six acres just outside the Brownsville city limits. Few locals give much chance to a lawsuit filed by landowners from around the proposed site, who challenge the plan's compliance with subdivision regulations.

Yet the unabated controversy over the proposed shelter signifies a changing attitude in the Rio Grande Valley toward illegal aliens, many valley residents believe. The debate also reflects concern about anything perceived as a threat to the area's already weak economy, some say, as well as lingering resentment over the role the Catholic Church has played in making the valley the first US destination for many Central Americans fleeing their countries.

The new shelter would replace the original Casa Oscar Romero, situated in a residential neighborhood in the little town of San Benito, 20 miles north of Brownsville. Opened in 1982, Casa Romero achieved national notoriety when its former directors were convicted of transporting undocumented aliens across the border.

The church attempted to reduce the shelter's profile by replacing its politicized lay directors with nuns. But by that time Casa Romero had become well known in Central America. A shelter originally intended for 20 people regularly housed 200 or more - mostly Salvadoreans and Nicaraguans, but also Guatemalans and Hondurans fleeing the region's strife. As complaints from neighbors about overcrowding mounted, San Benito ordered Casa Romero to move from its current site by Dec. 5 or face a $100-a-day fine. But the controversy in Brownsville has held up the relocation.

For Antonio Zavaleta, an anthropology professor at Texas Southmost College here, Brownsville's response to Casa Romero is one manifestation of what he calls the ``growing hysteria'' - in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as throughout Texas and the nation - over increased illegal immigration during the past few years.

``There is historical precedence for how Americans have responded to immigration during certain situations,'' Professor Zavaleta says, pointing to the mass deportation of Mexicans during the Great Depression, and the confinement of Japanese during World War II. ``If this is a swinging of the pendulum, it's not gone as far as it's going to go.''

With unemployment in the Rio Grande Valley running as high as 20 percent, many people lump the Central Americans staying at Casa Romero with illegal aliens in general, says the Rev. Leonard de Pasquale, a priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church here. The irony, he adds, is that virtually none of Casa Romero's ``guests'' plan to stay in the valley.

``They are headed to places like Houston and Chicago and Washington and Miami,'' he says, ``but that doesn't stop people here from thinking, `They're coming to take our jobs, to take our wealth away, to move into our neighborhoods.' The fears have really built up.''

Fr. de Pasquale blames much of the tension on the district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He says the INS ``bottles up'' the Central Americans who are in the valley seeking legalized refugee status by restricting their travel to other parts of the country.

The local INS office has started requiring a $1,000 bond for Central Americans to have their cases transferred to other immigration courts. The INS says that, without such bonds, too many illegal Central Americans were absconding and never reappearing for their cases. But Fr. de Pasquale points out that few people at Casa Romero have the money to post a bond.

The debate in Brownsville is augmented by another group of migrants to the area, the so-called ``winter Texans'' who arrive in trailers for a few months every year to escape the Northern cold.

Tourism brings more than a quarter-billion dollars into the valley each year and supports about 5,000 jobs, making it one of the area's prime economic forces. Many here fear that a new aliens' shelter could chase away tourists, especially those from the North whose views of illegal aliens are molded more by what they read and hear than by personal experience.

``I think it's mostly our local opposition that has fueled the fears of those who spend their winters here,'' says Hernan Gonzalez, spokesman for the Brownsville Diocese of the Catholic Church. ``I'm not sure they would know otherwise what they're reacting to.''

Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Casa Romero own tourist trailer parks near the proposed site. Their lawyer, Dennis Sanchez, says people are concerned that overcrowding or a ``refugee-camp appearance'' at the new site could prompt the winter Texans to move ``up the valley'' to towns like Mission or McAllen.

``The emotional issues probably concern people more than the legal issues,'' Mr. Sanchez says, ``but of course you can't sue on that basis.'' He believes that much of the fear concerning the proposed shelter could be cleared up if the Brownsville Diocese would promise proper roadways, drainage, and fencing for the facility, and reveal how many people it plans to house there.

Yet the church ``has no specific number in mind'' for the new shelter's capacity, according to the diocese's Mr. Gonzalez, especially as it cannot control demand. But he adds, ``We have learned we can't have an open-door policy.''

In San Benito, the Casa Romero director, Sister Juliana Garcia, puts the shelter's current population at about 100. ``We do not seek them out, but we do not reject them, either,'' she says. ``We are here only to meet their needs.''

She says the flood of Central Americans has slowed to a trickle as the weather has turned cold, and as the Rio Grande has risen. The gossip around the shelter is that the employer sanctions in the new immigration reform law have made jobs harder to come by, and that, too, has slowed arrivals.

In the women's dormitory, a dim, cement-floored room filled with beds and children, women talk as they haggle over a load of donated clothing that has just arrived. One woman from El Salvador says she brought her nine-year-old son north to keep him out of that country's war. Another woman, from Nicaragua, says she and her children are in the US to escape three things: her country's war, religious persecution, and the ``sandinismo,'' meaning the government the Sandinistas have brought to Nicaragua.

When asked, many of the women say they are amazed at the less-than-welcoming reception they have received in this country.

``We are trying only to leave a terrible situation, where there is war and often no food,'' says one Nicaraguan woman, cradling two infants in her arms. ``We thought for that reason we would be accepted here.''

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