In increasing numbers, United States cities are declaring themselves to be havens for Central American aliens, giving new political legitimacy to the sanctuary movement. In the latest action, San Francisco voted Monday to become a sanctuary city, joining a dozen other cities that have said they will not cooperate with federal officials in reporting or arresting illegal aliens from El Salvador or Guatemala.
San Francisco's resolution declares that the city ``won't be an arm of the INS,'' says Eileen Purcell, coordinator of the Central American Refugee Organizing Project, referring to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.
``It is not the legal duty -- nor necessarily the purview -- of localities, of the state, or even of ordinary citizens'' to help the INS apprehend and deport aliens, Ms. Purcell says.
But INS officials charge that the cities' resolutions are misleading and will only encourage hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens to flock to the US.
By pledging noncooperation with federal officials, cities ``give a false promise of safe haven from the INS,'' says John Belluardo, spokesman for the agency's western region. In fact, ``we're going to continue to look for people who are here illegally, and to deport them whenever we get the opportunity.''
In addition, the INS says it expects increased border activity by mid-January, when word of the recent sanctuary resolutions reaches Central America.
Sanctuary workers, very often religious leaders in their communities, have been instrumental in prompting cities to take action.
The first to declare sanctuary was the arch-liberal enclave of Berkeley, Calif., but it has since been joined by cities in the political mainstream such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
The resolutions are ``a powerful symbol of hope for these people,'' says Gus Schultz, pastor of University Lutheran Church in Berkeley and chairman of the National Sanctuary Defense Fund.
Berkeley has not experienced a massive influx of Central American aliens in recent months, he says. However, ``there are people here who have come out of the shadows,'' particularly if they need to seek medical attention or have been victims of a crime.
Sanctuary workers, who have helped smuggle Salvadoreans and Guatemalans into the US, staunchly maintain that they are not breaking the law. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, they say, a refugee is anyone who flees his homeland because of a ``well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.''
Recent reports out of El Salvador and Guatemala, however, indicate the political situations there are improving. In recent weeks, President Reagan has hailed the nations' return to civilian rule by democratic elections. And, reports of torture and random killings by the military and the ``death squads'' have decreased.
In fact, the INS says Central Americans are not fleeing persecution -- they are fleeing poverty.
Of the 500,000 Salvadoreans estimated to be in the US, 350,000 came in the decade before civil war broke out in 1979, according to Mr. Belluardo.
``There's a long history of these people coming to the US because of economic reasons,'' he says.
But Nicholas Rizza of Amnesty International USA, a group that monitors human-rights issues, says the ``bottom line in El Salvador is that the government is still killing people. It's the most significant fact of life in that country.'' Real progress will come only when the people responsible for the killings are brought to trial, he says.
The recent actions of these US cities have put the ball squarely in the INS's court, and the agency is scrambling to respond. So far the INS has taken no action, although officials say they are weighing their options.
US Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, however, has some ideas. He ``finds it galling'' that some cities, which rely on the federal government for immigration money, are refusing to help enforce immigration laws, says an aide.
The senator ``is looking at ways to cut off federal immigration funds to these cities,'' she adds.
Meanwhile, Seattle is expected to consider a sanctuary resolution early next week -- and sanctuary workers are delighted that the momentum is on their side.
``This is a policy clarification,'' says the Rev. Shirley Green of Santa Fe, N.M., which last week declared itself ``a city of refuge'' for Salvadoreans and Guatemalans. ``It's a symbolic gesture, saying to the federal government, `We think you're on the wrong track.' ''