There was nothing very surprising in the conviction of eight sanctuary-movement activists for 16 felonies in connection with their work on behalf of Central Americans seeking refugee status in the United States. Federal District Judge Earl H. Carroll had constructed rules so rigid that the fundamental issues were not tested and the jury was left little choice but to rule for conviction.
For the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, "this case has demonstrated that no group, no matter how well-meaningor highly motivated, can arbitrarily violate the laws of the United States." And for the assistant U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted the case, "The American system of justice fulfilled its function."
We disagree. The trial did not prove an arbitrary violation of the law, nor did it serve as an example of the fulfillment of the American system of justice. These issues will be tested once the appeal is filed after sentencing, now scheduled for July 1.
We remain convinced that no criminal action should have been brought against the activists. The controversy can best be resolved by providing extended-voluntary-departure status to the refugees, allowing them to remain in the United States until it is safe for them to go home.
Furthermore, we deplore the method employed by the government, which infiltrated the sanctuary movement with hired informers of dubious backgrounds in what seemed a violation of the religious freedom of all concerned. Those charged were engaged not in a clandestine conspiracy by underworld figures but in an open affirmative action in conformity with their religious traditions to provide sanctuary to persons in flight from tyranny and repression and violence.
Once the decision was made to bring these people to trial, they should have been enabled to defend themselves on the bases of their actions, including their claim to be exercising their religious rights and their assertion that they were in conformity with the law of the United States as affirmed in the 1980 Refugee Act. Instead, the court excluded all testimony on these basic issues and limited the jury's discretion to considering only the actual role of the defendants in helping undocumented aliens.
These basic issues will now be tested in the 9th Circuit Court. The appeal also will raise an allied question of importance: There is substantial evidence that the U.S. government selectively chose to prosecute these church people, who are involved in relatively few immigrant cases, while ignoring the far greater problem of the movement of large numbers of undocumented aliens to help the large agricultural establishments of the Southwest. That selectivity could have political motivation because criticism of U.S. policy is implicit in the program to help the Central Americans.
The sanctuary movement enjoys growing support in the United States, not only from religious groups, because it implements a tradition of the nation to help those in distress. The provision of that help is the more urgent in these cases because so much of the distress is the result of a long and continuing history of unwelcome U.S. interference in the nations from which the refugees are fleeing.