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Sanctuary leaders renew defense of asylum seekers

Tucson, Ariz.

On March 24, 1982, a group of religious leaders and social activists in Tucson, Ariz., declared the Rev. John Fife’s Southside Presbyterian Church the first public sanctuary for Central American refugees in the United States. Soon, at least 330 churches across the country joined the Sanctuary movement, providing safe havens for Central Americans fleeing death squads and oppression.

The movement also pressed for reform of U.S. government policy that supported right-wing Central American governments and that blocked refugees’ efforts to enter this country legally to seek formal asylum. Some Sanctuary workers helped refugees cross the border illegally and transported them through the country in defiance of U.S. law.

Twenty years and two felony convictions later, John Fife is spoiling for another fight.

According to Fife, political refugees, particularly from Colombia, are still being turned away at American ports of entry by “ignorant, unprepared immigration officials following the immoral and illegal policies of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

Furthermore, said Fife, the Border Patrol’s effort to seal the line at major border towns hasn’t reduced illegal immigration of either refugees or economic migrants. “That strategy has deliberately shifted the crossing points to the most dangerous areas of the desert,” he said.

As a result, dozens of illegal border crossers succumb to 115-degree temperatures each summer. In Southern Arizona alone, the death toll last fiscal year was 102; of those deaths, 78 occurred in the Border Patrol’s 271-mile-wide Tucson Sector. Since October, 12 people have died in the Tucson Sector. That’s an improvement since this time last year, when the figure held briefly at 23. Crossings came to a near halt immediately after Sept. 11, and have now resumed.

The most recent Arizona fatality was Arturo Heras Espinoza, 34, a Mexican economic migrant who died from dehydration March 22 -- the first day of a weekend-long Sanctuary celebration in Tucson. There, Fife and others called for the borderland faith community to renew its active commitment to refugees.

“There may be a need for another civil initiative to protect these people again,” he said.

By legal standards, the Sanctuary movement failed. In 1985, 11 Sanctuary workers -- including Fife, two Catholic priests and three nuns -- were indicted on federal charges of smuggling aliens. After a six-month trial, eight of the defendants were convicted on various felony and misdemeanor counts. None went to prison; most were sentenced to probation, with one receiving a suspended sentence.

Yet during the highly publicized trial, the number of Sanctuary churches more than doubled. By 1990, the movement was credited for the government’s decision to stop deporting and begin issuing work permits to Guatemalans and Salvadorans whose asylum applications were under review.

In 1992, following the signing of peace accords in Central America, Fife threw a party at his church and formally declared the Sanctuary movement to be over. But last weekend’s reunion became a revival of sorts, as Sanctuary veterans and new recruits agreed on the need for a fresh, faith-based commitment to refugee work.

Guenet Guebre-Christos, representing the U.S. and Caribbean interests of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told the group that war and political persecution no longer exclusively determine refugee patterns. She said economic, social, cultural and gender-based discrimination are increasing causes of displacement.

Guebre-Christos criticized the United States’ restrictive immigration law of 1996, which allowed INS workers untrained in the asylum process to turn away potentially legitimate asylum seekers at the border. She also decried the strengthened border control measures that cause more asylum seekers to turn to smugglers who take them over dangerous terrain, too often transforming their quest for a safe haven into a death march.

Guebre-Christos urged religious organizations to “spread the word of welcome to asylum seekers in religious services” and educational programs.

She and other participants, including Tucson immigration attorney Lynn Marcus and U.N. attorney Elizabeth Dallam, urged support of two refugee bills making their way through Congress. One, the Refugee Protection Act (HR4074), introduced in the House March 20, would promote alternatives to detention and would loosen rules on asylum applications.

The other, the Senate’s Unaccompanied Child Protection Act (S121), would appoint lawyers and guardians to represent the interests of lone children detained at the border, and would reassign their oversight from the INS to a new Office of Children’s Services in the Justice Department.

Children in administrative detention were a special concern at the gathering. According to attorney Lee Tucker, each year 5,000 children are kept in INS detention for more than 72 hours. About 30 percent of them are held in juvenile jails, where they receive treatment equal to that of juvenile delinquents. Assigned to bare cells, mingling with criminal kids, they are taken to their court appearances (where 80 percent lack legal representation) in prison uniforms and restraints, handcuffed for as long as eight hours. “That’s a humiliating, degrading experience for these kids,” Tucker said.

Meanwhile, several small-scale advocacy programs have arisen. One is the Asylum Program of Southern Arizona, which currently provides legal aid for 54 non-detained, indigent refugees seeking asylum. Another is the faith-based community organization Humane Borders, which presses for more liberal immigration policies and work programs and a demilitarized border. The group maintains water stations in remote parts of the desert where illegal crossers often die of dehydration.

That last activity rankles observers who feel that creating oases in the desert will only encourage people to make the illegal trek. Advocates, including Fr. Ricardo Elford of Tucson, insisted that it is necessary to face the reality of illegal crossings and establish humane procedures to reduce the death and suffering.

Fife has told the Border Patrol that if he’s on a water run and finds illegals in distress, he will defy the law and drive them to medical help rather than turn them in -- just like in the early Sanctuary days.

A. Bates Butler, one of the Sanctuary defense attorneys, pointed out that in the current anti-terrorism, anti-immigrant climate, people like Fife engaging in “civil initiatives” are more likely to go to jail than they were 20 years ago. But Rabbi Joe Weizenbaum, an early Sanctuary leader, said people committed to human rights work must put aside fear of punishment.

Recalling his preparation for driving undocumented refugees up from the border, he said, “You just take a deep breath and say, ‘This is right.’ ”

Freelance writer James Reel lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002