Central American, church, and other activist groups in eastern Massachusetts are protesting the recent opening of a federal detention center for illegal aliens which they say is being used to imprison Central Americans who have not broken any laws. The protest is also intended, organizers say, as a demonstration of solidarity with 16 workers in the underground church-sanctuary movement who were indicted last week, after a 10-month federal probe in Arizona and other states. The federal investigation was apparently aimed at shutting down a key component of an ``underground railroad'' for Central Americans in the United States, organized and staffed by church volunteers in some 160 different congregations nationwide. Two such churches exist in the Boston area.
On Monday the sanctuary movement received a setback in an earlier Texas case against a church worker charged with transporting illegal aliens. A federal judge ruled that religious duty or conscience does not override or provide immunity from the enforcement of US immigration laws. The defendant had argued that his actions in assisting and harboring the Central Americans were taken because of his religious convictions.
Several Boston activist groups plan a demonstration Wednesday at the Boston office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. A candlelight vigil will be held later, organizers say, outside the new 50-bed INS detention facility in the city's North End.
``We are protesting the principle of detaining someone who has not committed a crime,'' says Julia Wallace, a member of the Sanctuary Task Force of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, which is currently harboring a 27-year-old Salvadorean mother of three. ``The laws of this country say that people who are fleeing persecution have a right to enter this country to seek asylum.''
The protest is planned to coincide with the gathering Wednesday of more than 500 participants in Arizona in the ``Inter-American Symposium on Sanctuary.'' The meeting, organized by the sanctuary movement, is expected to be the largest of its kind ever held.
The Boston protesters' contention that Central American refugees are not illegal aliens is a key argument of defense lawyers for the 16 indicted sanctuary workers.
The INS counters that refugees are individuals prescreened by the US government and brought to the US by the government. The Vietnamese boat people, resettled in the US in the 1970s, are cited as an example. Immigration officials say that most of the Central Americans coming to the US are doing so for economic gain.
``Central American refugees are literally fleeing for their lives from direct political persecution, and they are entitled to sanctuary according to our own country's 1980 Refugee Act,'' says William Alberts, minister of the Community Church of Boston. The Community Church has been harboring a Guatemalan student, Manuel (not his real name), for more than a year.
``It is a great fear,'' Manuel says, concerned that he might be arrested at any time by immigration officials. ``When we started to be persecuted in our own country [Guatemala], it is the same fear I have right now.''
``We have had aliens for years and years from El Salvador who were coming here to work,'' says Timothy Whelan, deputy director of the INS's Boston office. ``Now since the controversy in that part of the world has come to the attention of the public, these people are claiming refugee status. But they are the same people who have been coming here for years for jobs.''
He adds, ``Once they get to the US they don't go to the first immigration office and claim asylum. The first thing they do is get a job. These asylum claims don't surface until after they are apprehended.''
Whelan questions why the so-called refugees did not stay in Mexico after fleeing the conflict in El Salvador or Guatemala. He answers his own question: ``They came to the United States for jobs.''
``There are many refugees in Mexico, and they are not well accepted,'' says Manuel. ``Some of the [Mexican] people send the [refugees] back.''