A newly formed coalition of church, student and peace groups is seeking to make Claremont the first city in the nation declared by its voters to be a sanctuary for Central American refugees.
The coalition says it will launch a drive July 4 to qualify the measure for the November ballot by collecting 2,855 valid signatures--15% of the city's 19,032 registered voters.
Nationwide, five cities have been declared sanctuaries, but none by popular vote. St. Paul, Minn.; Cambridge, Mass.; Madison, Wis., and Berkeley, Calif., became sanctuaries by action of their city councils, and Chicago was declared a sanctuary by executive order of Mayor Harold Washington.
Across America, more than 180 church groups have also joined the sanctuary movement, said Jo'Ann De Quattro, chairwoman of the sanctuary committee of the Southern California Interfaith Task Force on Central America.
The Community Coalition on Sanctuary was formed last week in the wake of a series of pro-sanctuary victories in Claremont and La Verne churches and college campuses last month. Eight churches and colleges in the two cities have either declared themselves sanctuaries or are actively supporting the cause, said Ruthann Miller, co-director of the Interfaith Peace Center. The La Verne-based organization has been coordinating sanctuary work in the East San Gabriel Valley for the last three years.
Besides providing jobs, money, food and clothing to refugees, Miller said the pro-sanctuary activists have sheltered refugee families in their homes and helped transport them to other "safe houses" throughout the state. Altogether, she said, Claremont and La Verne sanctuary efforts have settled 50 Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in the Claremont area and have raised funds to get 19 refugees released from Immigration and Naturalization Service custody.
Some of these activities, however, are violations of federal laws that make it a felony to conceal, transport or shelter illegal aliens. Although the Immigration and Naturalization Service has adopted a policy of not raiding schools or churches, the agency reserves the right to go after aliens wherever they are sheltered, said INS spokesman Joe Flanders at Terminal Island.
The pro-sanctuary activists say they are willing to accept the risk. "When you see a gun pointed at someone's head, you don't ask about the law, you act," said Charles Gelsinger, co-director of the Interfaith Peace Center, which opposes government efforts to deport Salvadorans and Guatemalans who enter the country illegally. Gelsinger said the refugees who are deported risk being imprisoned, tortured or killed when sent back to their native countries.
The government takes the position that the Salvadorans and Guatemalans who are deported are not being endangered and that the sanctuary movement is protecting illegal aliens who are using the strife in Central America as an excuse to escape the region's economic hardships.
"The government is trying to dismiss them as economic refugees, because they would like to hide the fact that we are supporting a government that does not care about its people," Miller said.
Claremont's emergence as a pro-sanctuary stronghold comes as somewhat of a surprise to coalition leaders. Republicans outnumber Democrats and city voters have cast their ballots in the GOP column in the last two presidential elections.
But Mayor Enid H. Douglass said she is not surprised at the level of support sanctuary has received. Douglass, director of the Claremont Graduate School's oral history program, said that the high level of intellectual discussion associated with a college town, the city's New England roots and an active and a progressive church community have resulted in a strong town hall tradition of informal debate on major policy issues.
However, Douglass, who has not taken a stand on the sanctuary issue, was not willing to forecast how the city's residents would vote on a sanctuary ballot measure. "I don't think one can second-guess them on these things. People may agree about basic humanitarian goals, but not on tactics."
Clifford Cole, a coalition spokesman and member of the Claremont Friends Meeting, said Claremont's sanctuary movement dates to December, 1982, when retired Tucson rancher James A. Corbett, one of the sanctuary movement's founders, visited Claremont and inspired the Claremont Friends Meeting, a Quaker congregation, to join the growing network of church groups helping refugees enter the United States. Corbett was one of 16 people indicted this year by a federal grand jury in Arizona in a crackdown against sanctuary leaders. He and the other defendants are awaiting trial.
Claremont's sanctuary movement has become the first in the San Gabriel Valley to expand into a coalition encompassing student, church and peace activists increasingly critical of Reagan Administration foreign policy in Central America, Gelsinger said.