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Chavez’s charity


So this is what it comes down to: If you’re a prominent conservative Hispanic who puts up an undocumented Guatemalan in your own home, it’s an act of charity. If you’re Linda Chavez in particular, pal of president-elect George W. Bush, and your loving kindness ruins your chances of being U.S. labor secretary, you’re a victim.

In a Jan. 9 news conference, Chavez said she was forced to pull her name from consideration for the post, thanks to the “politics of personal destruction.” The controversy sparked by the news of her having housed and given money to a needy Guatemalan woman is a “distraction,” she said, as Bush prepares to assume the presidency. Dishing out war metaphors prominent in everything from advertising to politics, Chavez said “search-and-destroy” politics had brought down her nomination.

Charity? Search-and-destroy? On Jan. 15, 1985, headlines nationwide homed in on Tucson, Ariz., where 16 people were indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the sanctuary movement. These, too, were charitable people. They’d opened their homes to needy Salvadorans and Guatemalans. They fed them and, like Chavez, they’d driven them around to English classes, doctor appointments and so on.

Some had even driven people across the U.S.-Mexico border; after all, tens of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans were fleeing war, death squads, torture and disappearance -- brutality the United States subsidized with our tax dollars to the tune of over a million dollars a day. Ronald Reagan and George Bush rarely met a Central American dictator they didn’t fund, so long as he claimed to be fighting communism. Chavez should know; she worked for the Reagan administration.

Many highly placed Republicans are still wringing their hands over Chavez’s plight. Does she not, asked one right-wing pundit, embody George Bush Sr.’s thousand points of light?

What I want to know is, where were Chavez’s defenders when 16 people, 16 years ago this month, learned that their charity was not charity at all, but conspiracy, aiding, abetting, harboring, smuggling and transporting?

And where was Chavez when the Tucson faith community endured an eight-month trial, constant FBI and immigration agency surveillance, and, finally, the conviction of eight of its members? A columnist and speaker of considerable rhetorical gifts, Chavez could have championed and consoled a community under siege.

In 1987 I was indicted, with a Lutheran minister, on charges similar to those faced by the Tucson sanctuary workers. Based in Chavez’s hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., our case concerned charity toward two pregnant Salvadoran women.

I faced a possible 25 years in prison. In the course of our 1988 trial, the prosecution used against us everything from my poetry to my bumper stickers. Ultimately, a jury found us not guilty: I on first amendment grounds because, as a writer, I was researching the sanctuary movement; and the minister on the grounds that his charitable acts took place in 1986, the year that then Gov. Toney Anaya of New Mexico declared the state a sanctuary for Central American refugees.

Though the proclamation was not legally binding, we took the governor at his word, for like Thomas the doubter, we and many New Mexicans had touched the wounds of refugee sisters and brothers. We believed. And that was all the jury needed to hear.

But that’s all in the past. Tonight, in South Tucson, hundreds of my Chicano and Mexican neighbors will be breaking bread with their relatives, knowing that at any moment border patrol agents could knock at the door and ask for proof of citizenship. All day every day this goes on -- at work, outside schools and medical clinics, at bus stops, you name it. The deportations are relentless, and the weeping of those whose family members are taken away must break God’s heart.

Linda Chavez, when will you speak up for these?

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001