US churches defy law -- form network to harbor Salvadoran refugees

A disconnected array of churches and ecumenical groups was strung into a necklace of sanctuaries across the Midwest early this month when a family of six Salvadoran refugees was transported from here to Chicago. The journey marks the first time sanctuary groups have joined as a network, despite US laws that make it a felony to harbor illegal aliens.

At least 15 churches have openly announced they are giving sanctuary to Central American refugees. Approximately 70 other churches are unofficially providing haven for the refugees, according to church leaders involved.

So far, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has not attempted to enter the sanctuaries, nor has it taken action against the church workers. ''We're not about to send investigators into a church and start dragging people out in front of the TV cameras,'' said Bill Joyce, assistant general counsel to the INS. ''We'll just wait them out, wait until they leave the church. This is just a political thing that the churches are dreaming up to get publicity - a game to pressure the government to allow Salvadorans to stay here. If we thought it was a significant problem, then maybe we'd take a look at it. But there are plenty of illegal aliens out there.''

Currently the INS deports about 800 Salvadorans a month.

The sanctuary relay began Aug. 2 in Tucson and moved the Salvadoran family ''paso por paso'' - step by step - through New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa, ending at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in Chicago.

The family members, who asked to remain anonymous because they fear persecution of relatives still in El Salvador, had made their way from their homeland two months earlier. They said they fled for fear that the Army would abduct the three sons for military service.

''You don't choose sides,'' said Francisco, a skilled laborer and the father of four. ''Whichever side you choose, the other will kill you. You just wait and see who comes to your door first, and then you're on their side.'' Peasants are being evicted from the lands given them under land reform and killed if they try to remain, he said. The government took most of the harvest this year and is charging three times as much for produce, although wages remain the same, he said.

''The US must be believing the lies of the Salvadoran government,'' said the father. ''If they really knew what was going on, they wouldn't have the heart to keep sending arms.''

INS counsel Joyce says Salvadorans have legal avenues available to buy them time. ''If the Salvadorans think they're going to be persecuted if they're returned to El Salvador, they should apply for asylum. Their chances of getting it are very low, but they can drag the process out. . . .''

The US granted seven of 260 Salvadoran applications considered for asylum from September 1980 to January 1982. More than 8,000 applications were filed.

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