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The Sanctuary Struggle

By B.B. |

The flow of illegal immigrants from Central America has slowed, due largely to the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s “border within a border” program containing the flow of illegal aliens to South Texas. But the debate continues over “sanctuary,” the practice of offering a safe haven to those whom participating churches deem “refugees’1 and the INS calls “illegals.”

Dr. Howard Tyas Jr. of Bethany Presbyterian Church, one of four Metroplex sanctuaries, is a strong proponent of Christian love. And Stephen Martin, regional commissioner of the INS, believes in the law. The sanctuary movement has set them on a collision course.

Facing each other recently at the Dallas Hispanic Issues Forum, they raised more questions than they answered.

Tyas and other proponents of sanctuary-illegal, according to INS, but so far mostly ignored due to more pressing immigration matters-maintain that the people they shelter are fleeing political repression, particularly in Guatemala and El Salvador, and therefore are entitled to enter the U.S. just as Russian or Polish dissidents are allowed. Martin and the INS maintain that at least 99 percent of those immigrants are simply illegal aliens who have come to this country for reasons of economic opportunity.

Sanctuary proponents say that the turndown ratio is inordinately higher for would-be refugees from regimes the U.S. deems “good.” like the struggling governments of Guatemala and El Salvador. Says Tyas: “What the present administration has done is to kind of tighten things to the point where people seeking refugee status from those countries have to produce some sort of affidavit with their name on it, saying they are on a hit list. It’s like saying, “bring a note from your government saying your government is going to kill you.’ “

Tyas and his associates are undaunted by the recent convictions of members of an Arizona church that helped to found the sanctuary movement in the U.S. Says Tyas: “What the government doesn’t realize is that the sanctuary movement is a grassroots movement. It doesn’t come from anyone at the top. It’s like a hydra. It has a lot of heads.”

Tyas and his associates are well aware of the risk they run. “We know the same thing could happen to us. From what I’ve heard from the INS. they know we are here. But they are understaffed and underfunded and have their hands full just dealing with the illegal aliens in Dallas and Fort Worth.”

Bethany is currently offering sanctuary to a Guatemalan family of six. “They definitely had to leave for fear of losing their lives,” Tyas says. “The father is a catechist in the Catholic Church. The priests under whom he worked, plus some of his fellow catechists, turned up dead in the ditch. He was to be next. His home was visited by plainclothes government military people who were looking for him under the pretext of offering him a better job. He happened not to be there that night and was able to escape.”

That capped a long period of terror for the Guatemalans. The man joined the church to protest the violence: a bombing raid wiped out his parents. He lost a brother, who was shot in the back while in the fields. His sister was machine-gunned in her home while making tortillas.

Faced with such horror | stories, INS officials recite the numbers. Since 1820. the U.S. has been the destination of 53 million immigrants. The U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s population, has absorbed 50 percent of its emigres-and this number reflects only the legal immigrants. With an estimated 3 million to 17 million illegal aliens at large in the U.S., the melting pot is overflowing. Says Martin. “Our borders must not be breached. The laws that the sanctuary movement has breached are to prevent the breakdown of our folkways and mores and the infrastructure of | our country.”

The recent passage of the immigration reform bill may tilt the balance, but for now. an uneasy stalemate continues. Tyas and the others in the movement will not let legalities stop them from feeding a hungry family on their doorstep and will not turn them over to the U.S. government if they believe the family will be sent home to be shot. Martin says the INS must enforce the law, however “tough on the heart” that may be. “Five percent of the earth’s population can’t take in the other four and a half billion,” he says. “That’s why we set the quotas.