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This Ground Is Holy : CHURCH SANCTUARY AND CENTRAL AMERICAN REFUGEES by Ignatius Bau (Paulist: $9.95, paperback; 288 pp.) : SANCTUARY: THE NEW UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Renny Golder and Michael McConnell (Orbis: $7.95, paperback; 214 pp.)

June 08, 1986|Allison Silver | Silver is an Opinion assistant editor.

The power of a President to define the issues in a national debate is nowhere more evident than in arguments concerning Central America. When you think of trouble in that region today, odds are that you will think of the contras' fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the encroachment into Honduras. Attention focuses on funding for what Ronald Reagan dubbed "freedom fighters" and what others consider to be a CIA-created and orchestrated insurgency. Fewer news stories are devoted to El Salvador, where the unpleasantness has now supposedly declined after the U.S.-endorsed election that brought President Jose Napoleon Duarte to power in 1984. True, there remain the death squads, and there is still some question as to exactly who the military gives its allegiance to, but that is often swept aside by the Administration's insistance that El Salvador has joined the ranks of nascent democracies fostered by its foreign policy.

It remains for such groups as Amnesty International to point out that human rights have been somehow dislocated in this nascent democracy, as they have in Guatemala, another regime bearing the Reagan stamp of approval. And it remains for the sanctuary movement, which brings refugees seeking political asylum into the United States, to underline the Administration's hypocrisy. For, while those fleeing the Sandinista regime are readily welcomed as political refugees, it has been a far different story for those fleeing oppression in El Salvador or Guatemala--"friendly nations" as far as the U.S. government is concerned. Despite harrowing tales of torture and disappearances, these people are usually categorized as economic rather than political refugees--and shipped back.

The trouble is that the sanctuary movement--wherein church communities, cities or even entire states, such as New Mexico, declare themselves havens for undocumented immigrants fleeing persecution in their homelands--is not itself inviolate. The mixing of church and politics, the righteous desire to resist the law in classic civil disobedience style while insisting that the U.S. government is really the lawbreaker, is problematic. Close reading of two recent books, "The Ground Is Holy," by Ignatius Bau, and "Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad," by Renny Golden and Michael McConnell, reveals the weakness as well as the strengths of the sanctuary movement.

Together, these books offer a good introduction to what the movement is and what it stands for--since one emphasizes the legal, political side and the other its passionate spiritual points. But the reader must wade through them both, which can be tough going.

Bau, a lawyer who writes like one, has managed to produce a poorly organized book. Placed in what seems to be almost random order is a detailed legal analysis of the movement today followed by chapters tracing the evolution of sanctuary from Biblical times. What he has to say is informative, even valuable. His discussion of standard Immigration and Naturalization Service practices, such as attempts to coerce illegal aliens to sign away their rights for a court hearing, is even more chilling for being thuddingly written. His analysis of recent judicial decisions is insightful, including a ruling that a man could be charged with breaking the "shield from detection" restriction if he verbally warned undocumented workers that the INS was approaching.

If the Ignatius work leans toward the legalistic, the Golden and McConnell book emphasizes the spiritual, arguing from the heart and not the head. This book is also far more commercial--for example, each chapter starts with the "testimony" of a refugee, detailing the terror left behind in the native land, the mutilated bodies lying beside the road, the disappearances of friends or lovers, while officials stonewall. This is all sensational, though true, and should be used judiciously, for a little goes a long way.

Renny and McConnell, both members of the sanctuary movement, believe an integral part of their work must involve efforts to alter U.S. foreign policy, which they insist is leading to U.S. troop interventions in Central America, a full-scale invasion. It is this sort of analysis--carrying to the extreme their well-documented evidence of U.S. interference in Latin American affairs--that undercuts the authors' arguments. The role of Congress and the will of the people, revealed in repeated polls as being against any troop intervention in Central America, seem to have been overlooked.

It is also telling that, although Golden and McConnell have subtitled their book "The New Underground Railroad," this analogy does not agree with Ignatius. While he devotes substantive chapters to the application of sanctuary in the Old Testament, Ancient Rome, early Christian times and down through English history, he gives little more than a page to comparisons involving the Underground Railroad. He explains, "As abolitionists, they were willing to violate what they perceived as an unjust and immoral law and did not claim any special privileges or immunities because of their religiosity." This certainly contradicts what today's movement argues.

The sanctuary movement, a mixture of the head and the heart, is difficult to pin down, as these books prove. It deserves a more thoughtful and deliberate examination than either work offers.

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