THE sanctuary movement has recently been victimized by a series of dead-of-the-night break-ins. From Cambridge to Berkeley, from Philadelphia to Phoenix, the same story has been told nearly three dozen times over the past year. Offices are trashed, files and records rifled, but valuable items including cash are left untouched. The basement offices of the Nuevo Instituto de Centro America in the Old Cambridge (Mass.) Baptist Church have been broken into three times; on each occasion, the place was left in a shambles but nothing was taken. The door of the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in the Berkeley (Calif.) Trinity Methodist Church was smashed in last winter, the office ransacked; expensive equipment remained unscathed. Several attorneys working on Central American refugee cases report that their offices have been burglarized a nd case files stolen.
Sanctuary movement leaders insist that these incidents aren't just an extraordinary series of coincidences. They charge that government agents are conspiring to sabotage their efforts. The police uniformly disagree. They treat the incidents as routine burglaries, the likely work of street people who spot an easy mark. But each time they have come up empty in their investigations.
US Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, who chairs the House subcommittee on civil and consitutional rights, is sufficiently troubled by this to pursue an informal probe. ``I don't think that the government agents would be that irresponsible, that stupid, that criminal,'' says the ex-FBI agent. ``I hope not.''
The conspiracy charge may well prove the product of overheated imaginations. But from what is on the record, the administration regards itself as engaged in an ideological war against the sanctuary movement, as well as other groups strongly opposed to the official US policy in Latin America. In that kind of crusade, the Marquess of Queensberry rules are sometimes ignored.
Visitors to Nicaragua can anticipate being questioned by customs officials or the FBI, on the lookout for ``subversive'' literature and membership in ``those radical political groups.'' When Edward Haase, a journalist who belongs to a Central Amer- ican ``solidarity group'' in Kansas City, returned from a two-month stay in Nicaragua, customs agents confiscated his diary and address book as well as two articles he had written. Their intention, the agents said, was to photocopy the material for other interested federal agencies.
Members of the Committee on Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, whose stated mission is to provide food and medicine for war victims, are regularly questioned by the FBI; a draft Defense Department white paper accused the organization of conducting Soviet-inspired ``disinformation'' activities. From these groups, there are complaints about mail being opened, surveillance being carried out, and telephones being tapped.
Washington officials dispute the contention that they see themselves as battling a Marxist-Leninist conspiracy. They describe the prosecutions of sanctuary members as nothing more than bringing criminal charges against those who smuggle aliens into the US. But government documents say otherwise. The record in a Tucson, Ariz., trial of 11 people charged with helping aliens illegally cross the border includes memos showing that Washington believed it was dealing with a band of Marxists who were transporti ng Latin American terrorists. That's the rationale for a nine-month undercover operation carried out by government agents, who secretly taped sanctuary meetings.
The US attorney prosecuting the Tuc- son case says the communist conspiracy theory has been discounted. Yet an immigration official, commenting on a decision by the City of Los Angeles to provide a safe harbor for Central American refugees, damned supporters of sanctuary as ``Marxist-Leninist sympathizers.''
The harassment that is on the record has discouraged Central American activists from speaking out. It has also added to the terror of those who have fled from El Salvador and Guatemala out of fear. What the government has acknowledged doing pushes to the limits of what the law allows -- pushes hard enough to make the contention that government agents may have gone even further than the law allows seem less outlandish.
David L. Kirp is a professor of law and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.