During recent testimony on a proposal to make this city a sanctuary for Central American refugees, a federal immigration official threatened to ``dump'' illegal aliens on the steps of City Hall to test ``how big the city's heart really is.'' Austin's sanctuary resolution was subsequently withdrawn. But the official's threat suggests mounting frustration among federal authorities as a growing number of cities, counties, and now states take up the sanctuary issue.
The sanctuary movement took root several years ago among United States religious organizations seeking to protect Central American aliens they considered political refugees from deportation back to their strife-torn nations. [In Tucson, Ariz., after a six-month trial, a federal jury is deliberating the fate of 11 clergymen and lay church workers accused of smuggling aliens from El Salvador and Guatemala into the US.]
More recently, however, local and state governments have taken up the cause. Seventeen cities across the US have proclaimed themselves sanctuaries. And last month New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya declared his entire state a sanctuary. He has called on New Mexico citizens to oppose deportation of Central Americans, while directing state agencies to provide them with material assistance.
Federal officials insist immigration is the domain of the federal government. They also say that the proclamations encourage Central Americans to enter the country illegally, while discouraging US citizens from cooperating with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) efforts to stem the flow of undocumented aliens into the country.
Supporters of the local resolutions say their point is not to meddle in the federal government's business. But they say they do hope to put pressure on the federal government to change its policy of deporting more than 95 percent of the Central Americans it apprehends. The Reagan administration maintains that the great majority of Central American aliens are here for economic, and not political, reasons, and thus do not qualify for refugee status.
``The US Supreme Court has said that immigration matters are to be handled by Congress and the appropriate federal agencies, and we agree,'' says Tom Sharpe, an aide to Governor Anaya.
``But our hope, and the point of our proclamation,'' Mr. Sharpe says, ``is to spur Washington to reconsider its laws and how it carries them out.''
When Governor Anaya announced his proclamation March 28, he said he hoped it would have a ``snowball effect'' on other state and local governments. Since then, however, Gov. Mark White of Texas and Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Anaya's neighbors on the Mexican border, have both stated their opposition to state action.
But a New York state assemblyman says Governor Anaya's action prompted him to begin work on a sanctuary resolution he plans to introduce as early as this week to the New York Assembly. And officials in King County, Washington, are also considering a sanctuary measure. King County contains Seattle, which in December approved one of the country's strongest sanctuary resolutions.
The problem, according to the INS, is that such proclamations encourage Central Americans -- and other foreigners as well -- to believe that the US is ready to accommodate them with open arms.
``I know [Governor Anaya] believes his proclamation has no legal effect, but the alien could easily misunderstand it,'' says Jim Lucas, officer in charge of the INS office in Albuquerque, N.M.
He adds: ``The people we're denying asylum to simply are not refugees. It's not some whim coming out of Washington, it's the law, and it conforms with the Geneva Convention [provisions on] refugees.''
``The INS explanation that these people are coming here only for economic improvement is obviously inaccurate,'' says Richard Sinkin, a specialist in Latin American studies at the University of Texas. ``But the sanctuary people need to acknowledge that they do come for economic, as well as political reasons.''
However the controversy develops, many experts don't expect it to have much effect on Central Americans considering the journey to ``El Norte.''
``[Sanctuary] is an extension of a long tradition of people coming across the border for political reasons,'' says Oscar Martinez, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. He notes, for example, that hundreds of Mexicans were accommodated in El Paso when Pancho Villa took control of Chihuahua in 1913.