CRACKDOWN ON SANCTUARY The Underground Railroad Surfaces

September 25, 2007

Editorial note: Since this article was written, Stacy Merkt was convicted on all three felony counts. Sentencing is scheduled for June 27th. Sister Diane Muhlenkamp, of the Indiana-based Poor Hand Maids of Jesus Christ, chose not to stand trial with Merkt. In pre-trial plea bargaining, Muhlenkamp agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for a government promise that charges will not be brought against her for one year. On May 14--the day of Merkt's conviction-Phil Conger learned that the government had decided to charge him with four counts of transporting illegal aliens. In Central America, refugees are sub- versives; here they're deportable illegal aliens. If you aid refugees in Central America you become a subversive or dead. If you aid them here you become afelon. The Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America On February 17, Diane Muhlenkamp, a Catholic nun, and Stacy Merkt, a lay worker at Oscar Romero House--a diocesan-supported refugee center for Central American refugees-were de- tained at 4 a.m. along with three Sal- vadoreans and a journalist near San Benito, Texas. The six were picked up during the first leg of the Salvadoreans' Lindie Bosniak is a legal worker and collaborator with San Francisco's Cen- tral American Refugee Defense Fund (CARDF). Jane Rasmussen, an attor- ney, is CARDF's executive director. CARDF, a project of the National Lawyers Guild, provides information for and maintains communication with lawyers, legal workers and others in- volved in social service and legal poli- cy advocacy for Central American refugees. For more information, write CARDF, 558 Capp Street, San Fran- cisco, CA 94110, (415) 285-8040. journey to sanctuary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Old Cam- bridge Baptist Community was await- ing them. Immigration and Naturaliza- tion Service (INS) officials stopped their car-owned by the Catholic Dio- cese of Brownsville, Texas-without a warrant. A second set of arrests occurred on March 7th near Nogales, Arizona. The U.S. Border Patrol detained religious lay workers Phil Conger and Katherine Flaherty, who, at the time of their arrest, were acting as representatives of several congregations in Tucson which provide sanctuary and transpor- tation relays for Salvadorean and Gua- temalan refugees. They were detained along with four Salvadoreans. The six were stopped in an automobile regis- tered to the Southside Presbyterian Church, site of the first sanctuary de- clared in the United States on March 24, 1982. These episodes mark the first direct attacks leveled against the church-led movement to provide U.S. sanctuary to Salvadorean and Guatemalan refugees. Besides aiding thousands of Central American refugees by providing them with shelter, transportation to sanctu- ary in other locations and other mate- rial assistance, the two-year old move- ment has proved to be an important educational and mobilizing tool against U.S. involvement in Central America. The cases have proceeded different- ly in the two states, however. After being held for several hours, Conger and Flaherty were released from cus- tody. Despite threats, the government has brought no charges against them. Behind the delay appears to lie a sharp difference of opinion between local and Washington-based federal officials about whether to press for convictions. The INS Regional Commissioner for Los Angeles, Harold Ezell, character- ized the case as "extremely sensitive and of great import to the Immigration Service. . . . We're not going to let it fall through the cracks." Ezell added that his office would be clearing its statements with INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson in Washington. In contrast, the U.S. attorney for Tucson held a press conference on March 28 in which he responded to questions about the directives he has received on the case from Washington. "I can tell you truthfully I have not talked to a single person from the De- partment of Justice. . . . They deem this to be a local matter. We're treating it as a local matter, and it's not being or- chestrated by anyone anywhere." According to Conger, who is Project Director for the Tucson Ecumenical Council Task Force on Central Ameri- ca, the U.S. Justice Department wants to use the arrests as an opportunity to crack down on the nationwide sanc- tuary movement, while the local U.S. attorney's office is more reluctant to proceed with the case since it is aware that sanctuary efforts enjoy significant local support. The Texas authorities don't seem as concerned with the movement's popu- lar support. By most accounts, Muhlen- kamp and Merkt's encounter with the law was accidental. Such routine checks are common to the border area. Never- theless, the decision by the government to prosecute was deliberate and marks an end to the practice of avoiding con- frontation with sanctuary activists. On March 13, the religious workers were charged with three felony counts, while the decision to indict Dallas Times Herald reporter Jack Fischer was de- layed, pending further investigation. Muhlenkamp and Merkt were released on personal recognizance bonds and are currently awaiting trial, which, ac- cording to their attorneys, will prob- ably be set in May or June. They each face up to 15 years imprisonment and $15,000 in fines if convicted. The refugees were charged with the misdemeanor crime of entry without inspection. They were released on $9,000 bond each, an unusually high amount for persons charged only with illegal entry. Their bond was posted by Lutheran church groups. Jury selection for the refugees' trial is scheduled to take place on May 3. If convicted, they will likely be subpoenaed to testify as material witnesses at the trial of the 4 REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 4 REPORT ON THE AMERICASreligious workers. The offensive against the sanctuary movement in Texas has not stopped with these arrests. On April 13, INS arrested Jack Elder, directer of Casa Oscar Romero. He has been charged with transporting illegal aliens. The government is currently holding three Salvadorean refugees who received as- sistance from members of the under- ground railroad and sanctuary com- munities in the Rio Grande area. Father Wally Kusuboski, a defense attorney for arrested lay worker Stacy Merkt, says the government is expected to use these refugees as material witnesses to try to bring indictments against three or four more sanctuary workers in the Rio Grande valley. Kusuboski believes that the government is attempting to close down the underground railroad in Texas, thus preventing Salvadoreans from mak- ing it further north. By their presence and their personal testimonies, refugees in communities throughout the country help increase the already deep-felt op- position to U.S. policy in Central America among church groups and in the public at large. Sanctuary and the Law Those involved in the sanctuary movement know full well that the act of providing refuge for Central Americans fleeing their countries is defined as a felony by U.S. law. That has not de- terred the mushrooming of the move- ment. According to the Chicago Re- ligious Task Force on Central Ameri- ca-clearinghouse for much of the na- tion's sanctuary activity-in only two years, the movement has grown to em- brace over 1 10 congregations of almost all religious denominations. Renny Golden, a founding member of the task force, estimates that well over 70,000 people could be charged with defying U.S. law for providing shelter to refu- gees or for participating in the under- ground railroad. And the movement continues to grow. According to The New York Times, at least one church joins the sanctuary movement weekly, while hundreds of others help by providing food, clothing and other assistance. The movement has also begun to find fertile ground in universities. On Feb- ruary 21, the Graduate Student Assem- bly at the University of California at Riverside declared the university an extended stop on the underground rail- road, and other California graduate schools have since met to consider do- ing the same. Each congregation or community that considers providing sanctuary painstakingly examines the decision to challenge U.S. law. Those who have chosen to participate do so out of an allegiance to a moral imperative which, under current conditions, entails risk- ing imprisonment, fines and felony records. Individuals convicted of har- boring, transporting and conspiring to transport persons not lawfully in the United States face up to five years in jail and a $2,000 fine per alien for each count.. "We are breaking the laws of our government because of a higher moral law . . . the need to save the lives and protect the liberty of these refugees," explains Dick Simpson of Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in Chicago. Jim Corbett, a Quaker and one of the founders of the sanctuary movement, similarly states, "For those of us who would be faithful in our allegiance to the Peaceable Kingdom, there's also no way to avoid recognizing that in this case collaboration with the U.S. gov- ernment is a betrayal of our faith. ... When the government itself sponsors the torture of entire peoples and then makes it a felony to shelter those seek- ing refuge, law-abiding protest merely trains us to live with atrocity." MAY/JUNE 1984 5 MAY/JUNE 1984 5Sanctuary is a concept which has a long and solid tradition in Judeo-Chris- tian doctrine. Historically, the churches played a critical role in the underground railroad for runaway slaves during the last century, and were also in the fore- front of the movement to provide pro- tection for conscientious objectors and AWOL servicemen during the Vietnam War. U.S. church people say too that they've been challenged to re-examine their moral and political obligations at home by the witness of Central Ameri- can Christians. "The willingness of the church in Latin America to stand with the poor, the tortured and the oppressed is a very powerful example," says David Chevrier, pastor at Chicago's Wellington Avenue Church. "Their fearlessness in the face of incredible intimidation and terror, torture and death. It makes what we're doing so little and the strength needed to do it so minimal in light of it. The connection between faith and what the church is doing in Central America is very im- portant." Less Than 4% Granted Asylum The compelling force behind the sanctuary movement has been U.S. government refusal to recognize Sal- vadoreans and Guatemalans as bona fide refugees. The United States signed the United Nations Protocol on the Status of Refugees in 1967 and its principles were integrated into U.S. law through the Refugee Act of 1980. The protocol and the Refugee Act re- quire the United States to grant politi- cal asylum to anyone who possesses a well-grounded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Nevertheless, those Central Ameri- cans who apply for political asylum have little chance of success. In keep- ing with U.S. foreign policy concerns, the State Department routinely recom- mends against granting political asy- lum to Salvadoreans and Guatemalans. Immigration judges and the INS con- sistently interpret the Refugee Act in extremely narrow terms, thus render- ing most applicants ineligible for asy- lum. It is difficult to calculate the num- bers of individual asylum applications that have been submitted, and of these, how many have been approved and denied, because INS no longer keeps such records. But according to Lou DeSitter, Legal Services coordinator of the El Rescate refugee center in Los Angeles, of the total number of cases decided in the last three years, less than 4% of the applicants were granted po- litical asylum. Moreover, many refu- gees never apply for asylum. Some are coerced into waiving their rights by signing "voluntary departure" forms; others lack access to legal resources to help them file their claims. In addition to the international obli- gations created by the Refugee Pro- tocol, international humanitarian law defines Salvadoreans and Guatemalans who have fled their countries as refu- gees of armed conflict. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the forci- ble return of refugees to their country of origin. Yet since 1980, more than 35,000 Salvadoreans have been deported from the United States. Available fig- ures indicate that a significant number of repatriated refugees are found dead- usually with signs of torture-within a few months of their return. The most widely known case of the death of a deported Salvadorean is that of Santana Chirino Amaya. Chirino Amaya was found decapitated in the department of San Vicente one month after his deportation from the United States. The Central American Refugee Project in San Francisco recently re- ceived a letter from a deported Salva- dorean who reports that upon arrival at San Salvador airport, all the deportees were separated from the other passen- gers and detained by the police. Each of them was questioned and registered, and all their belongings confiscated. U.S. Violates International Law In 1981, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refu- Carol Larsen of Wheavon United Methodist with an arriving Salvadorean in 1982. REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 6gees (UNHCR) found that the United States has engaged in a "systematic practice" of returning Salvadoreans to their country, regardless of the merits of their claims for asylum. Such prac- tice, according to the UNHCR report, is in violation of the UN Protocol on the Treatment of Refugees, which bans the deportation of a refugee to a country where persecution is likely to occur. Although the United States has failed to comply with international law, the Reagan Administration has made no move to remedy the situation. Central Americans are treated as illegal aliens- or economic refugees-and afforded no recognition as persons fleeing from persecution in countries at war. The United States does have a specific legal mechanism for allowing persons escap- ing violence and persecution to remain here until hostilities in their home countries have ceased. This "extended voluntary departure status" has been extended to refugees of many countries over the years, and is currently in effect for persons from Poland, Afganistan, Lebanon, Uganda and Ethiopia. Late last year Congress adopted a resolution calling upon the president to grant extended voluntary departure status to Salvadorean refugees who have been in the United States since January 1983. Moreover, the DeCon- cini-Moakley Bill introduced last No- vember essentially calls for the halting of all deportations of Salvadoreans un- til the situation in their country is such that they may return safely. Yet the Administration has so far rejected peti- tions from Congress and a broad spec- trum of individuals, organizations and community groups asking that Salva- doreans be permitted to find temporary safe haven in this country, and the deportations continue en masse. Churches "Playing Games" Until the Texas and Arizona inci- dents, the Immigration and Naturaliza- tion Service had apparently sought to avoid confrontation with the sanctuary movement. Obviously aware of the sanctuary activity, they chose not to act. Bill Joyce, assistant general coun- sel to the INS told the Christian Sci- ence Monitor in 1982 that "this [the sanctuary movement] is just a political thing that the churches are dreaming up to get publicity, a game to pressure the government to allow Salvadoreans to stay here. If we thought it was a signifi- cant problem, then maybe we'd take a look at it. But there are plenty of illegal aliens out there." Yet in spite of its disparaging por- trayal of the movement, INS has al- ways emphasized its legal right to take action whenever it sees fit. "We are permitted to enter church property with a proper warrant of inspection. God will not strike us dead if we go in. But as a practical matter, we have more than we can handle apprehending il- legal aliens at the worksite," said David Ilchert, northern California re- gional director of INS. That the sanctuary movement did not face notable harrassment by the U.S. government until the Texas ar- rests does not, however, mean that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been entirely passive with respect to the growing support movement for Central American refugees. On the contrary, it has been escalating attacks against exiles and curtailing their mea- gre legal resources. For example, INS commonly coerces Salvadoreans into waiving their rights, including the right to counsel, the right to a hearing and the right to apply for political asylum. Refugees are often physically or ver- bally abused during arrest and while in detention, and attorneys are routinely denied access to their clients. These and other violations of the refugees' due process rights are being challenged by a class action suit in Los Angeles, Orantes-Hernandez v. Smith. A Fed- eral District Court judge in Los Ange- les ordered a preliminary injunction against these practices in April 1982 while the case is pending. Though the injunction is still in effect, violations commony occur. The case will be tried this summer. The government's most recent tactic in its offensive against the refugees and their defenders is the transferral of large numbers of apprehended aliens to detention centers in remote rural areas, where their bond redetermination and deportation hearings also take place. In recent months, for instance, most Sal- vadoreans detained in San Francisco have been sent to a holding facility in Florence, Arizona. Such a practice iso- lates the refugees from any family, friends and other support systems they may have in this country, and renders it virtually impossible for them to gain access to legal assistance and to bond out of jail while they await their depor- tation hearings. Feeling virtually cer- tain they will be sent home after a long incarceration, many opt to return at once. Underground Railroad Surfaces In response to the arrests of the Texas sanctuary workers, sanctuary and underground railroad activists or- ganized a public car caravan carrying a Guatemalan refugee family of seven to sanctuary. The fifteen-car caravan left Chicago on March 16 and arrived in Weston, Vermont on March 24, doubled in size. The cars were covered with signs calling for "INS Hands Off" and "Save Central American Refugees." According to Renny Golden, the or- ganizers decided that if it was no longer safe to transport refugees clandestinely, they would surface the railroad, forc- ing the Reagan Administration to make public "the sinister nature of its depor- tation policy," and with it, "its bloody foreign policy." The caravan received significant media attention and public support along the way, and the authori- ties did not interrupt or harrass the caravan in any manner. Whether or not the federal authori- ties plan to launch an all-out offensive against the sanctuary movement is still not apparent. The political costs in- volved in prosecuting large numbers of religious workers and dragging refu- gees out of churches before national television cameras would be high. Yet if they don't take action, the sanctuary movement will continue to help turn public opinion against U.S. involve- ment in Central America. The govern- ment is aware that the real goal of the movement is not to proliferate sanc- tuaries and clandestine transportation relays for Central American refugees. Rather, its goal is to eliminate their necessity by stopping the U.S.-funded war in Central America. It is this un- derlying objective, and the potential of the movement to help achieve it, that represents its true challenge to the gov- ernment and the real strength of its work.

Tags: Central America, refugees, US Church, deportation

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