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Sanctuary : Church Takes Risks to Aid Central American Emigres

March 07, 1985|VIRGINIA ESCALANTE | Times Staff Writer

Although she has been in the United States for two years, Maria Ramirez's eyes still fill with tears when she recalls bloody scenes from her homeland.

Decapitated corpses. Heads on a park bench. Electrical burns on bodies. Needle points in eyes. Skinned faces. Young boys hanging from trees. An entire village massacred.

"I have seen thousands of horrible things in my country," said Ramirez, a refugee from war-torn El Salvador who asked that she not be identified by her real name, fearing deportation and retaliation against relatives back home.

In a recent interview in Pico Rivera, Ramirez, a former teacher, and her husband, Jose, who was a principal, described life in their country, their flight north to the United States two years ago, and the help they received from the sanctuary movement at the Pico Rivera United Methodist Church. The two former educators were the first family given refuge by the congregation at the Pico Rivera church in February, 1983.

Threats of Torture, Death

Today, the predominantly Latino church continues to serve as a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing the violence of civil war, people the congregation feels are threatened with torture or death.

Convinced of the danger most refugees would face if returned to their country, the congregation says it will offer them help, despite the recent nationwide arrests and indictments of 22 sanctuary workers, two of whom have been convicted of transporting undocumented immigrants in Texas.

Depending on how they help undocumented immigrants, members of the Pico Rivera congregation could face a minimum penalty of five years in prison and a $2,000 fine for harboring undocumented emigres.

"These indictments, arrests and persecutions by the U.S. government have only strengthened the sanctuary movement," the Rev. Fernando Santillana, pastor of the church, said in a recent interview in the church offices.

Upholding Law of God

Like other sanctuary leaders, Santillana contends that the congregation is upholding American law, as well as the law of God, by protecting life. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there is no way for the congregation to know whether those they have helped qualify for asylum under United States law.

The 1980 Refugee Act provides asylum on grounds of "persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution" back home. The federal government has sent thousands of refugees back to El Salvador and Guatemala, saying that most of the refugees have fled for economic reasons and do not meet the conditions for special entry into this country.

"We understand and know that the lives of many of the refugees are in danger if they remain in El Salvador or are deported to their country," he said. "We have a responsibility to God and those who face persecution and death. And though the threat of imprisonment exists, we must respond to the needs of the suffering people in Central America."

The congregation has converted a classroom into living quarters and has assisted 29 families of refugees with food, clothing, housing, jobs and language and vocational classes.

"In reality, they could be people who are lying or taking advantage of us," Santillana said. "But we are Christians and even if they lie to us, we cannot deny help to anyone. . .. If we have to be absolutely sure before we act or help, then we are not a true sanctuary.

"The only way for us to make sure they are political refugees is for us to do what the government is doing--to start investigating and discriminating."

Must Submit Affidavits

To be granted asylum, political refugees must submit affidavits proving that they would be persecuted in their home country, according to Lawrence Chamblee, special assistant attorney for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"The question of asylum will be decided on the strength of what the alien has offered," he said, adding that details of arrests in the homeland might be accepted as proof.

"Many asylum applications are groundless," he said. "For them to say, 'The police have me on a death list. Don't send me back,' is not enough."

"Very often the State Department recommends against granting asylum," he said, adding that those whose statements are not determined to carry sufficient weight will be deported.

"If they come because the United States is a better place to live, they are not (political) refugees," he said.

Border Control

Restrictions on entry into the country, including applications for political asylum, were established because "any nation is concerned with the control over its borders," said William Martin, an INS attorney.

However, a bill introduced Jan. 30 by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) would halt the deportation of Salvadorans for two years, at which time Congress would consider extending the period of refuge. The Reagan Administration opposes the bill.

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