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Movement Leader Sees Aiding Refugees as a Spiritual Mandate

August 30, 1987|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — Carol Conger-Cross has come to Mexico to meet a man from El Salvador. He is huddled in the corner of a small, dark room, and he is scared.

She is a leader in the Sanctuary movement, which offers aid and comfort to refugees--food, a bed, kind words and support. None of it seems to matter. He is looking at her like a cat frozen by car headlights.

He tells her his story. In 1983, he witnessed the murder of a friend on a street in San Salvador. He says the military committed the murder, and knowing he was a witness, officials apprehended and tortured him. Scars are evident on his face and hands. He fled the country, only to return. Recently, he left again, and now, he says, he is really on the run.

Seeking His Sister

He wants to go to the Midwest, where he hopes a sister is living. He hears she got married, but he doesn't have an address or phone number, nor does he know her husband's name. Conger-Cross says Sanctuary will try to help. But first, there are questions.

She wants to know if he is a spy, a member of a Salvadoran death squad on his way to Los Angeles. Salvadoran death squads, she says, have begun to infiltrate Los Angeles, seeking out Salvadoran refugees as targets. She says a Salvadoran woman, the victim of political persecution in her native country, was recently gang-raped by death-squad members in Los Angeles.

After more than an hour of conversation, Conger-Cross is satisfied the man is not a spy, that he is deserving of a few dollars for clothing and tips on how to cross the border--questions and tactics he might encounter.

According to Conger-Cross, Sanctuary members in San Diego do not smuggle aliens across the border; they counsel them and screen them ahead of time. Many are encouraged to stay in Mexico. "It's always better to stay and blend in, especially when the language is the same," she says. Many do stay, but many more head north, sometimes against her wishes.

At the border checkpoint, Conger-Cross, 32, tells the guard she has been in Tijuana to "visit a friend." No more questions are asked; she is back in the United States.

But what she has done, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, is to aid and abet a refugee--an act that, when committed in the United States, is a felony.

She says she is willing to take such risks on the basis of religious faith. She can be counted on to go to Tijuana again. She will help dozens after they've crossed. Some will tell sadder stories and bear greater pain. Others might be spies.

Always, there is danger, suspicion and fear.

Conger-Cross, who lives in Lemon Grove with her husband, a 4-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old stepdaughter, is sometimes asked why she endures such risks. (Her husband, Dale, also is involved in the movement, though not as intensely. He once served as Sanctuary's national media spokesman.)

"I take the risks," she said, "because I do have children. As I understand my faith, it means to assist the sojourner in your land, to feed the hungry, aid the poor. If I was in that position, fleeing for my life, I hope someone would assist me. I've never seen a big difference between my child and one starving to death in Ethiopia or El Salvador."

Risks--and involvement in the 6-year-old Sanctuary movement--already have exacted a toll. Conger-Cross' brother, Phil Willis-Conger, was convicted in 1986 of conspiracy, transporting illegal aliens and misdemeanor aiding and abetting. Willis-Conger, who now lives in Berkeley, was then director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council's refugee task force; he received five years' probation.

Interfaith Coalition

Conger-Cross is coordinator of the San Diego Interfaith Task Force on Central America, which has its offices in her place of worship, the United Methodist Church of La Mesa. The task force is a coalition of more than a dozen churches and synagogues offering sanctuary to refugees fleeing war in Central America. Most are from El Salvador and Guatemala, a few from Nicaragua and Honduras.

The movement has enlisted more than 300 churches nationwide and aided more than 4,000 refugees since its inception in 1981. It was born when 13 Salvadorans out of a group of 26 died while crossing an Arizona desert. Thirteen drank their own urine to survive.

Sanctuary has been a frequent target of the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"The law makes no allowances for those who take the law into their own hands," Border Patrol spokesman Michael Nicley said of Sanctuary. "The Immigration and Naturalization Service is asked to determine who may or may not enter the country. It isn't the job of some church.

"Harboring and transporting aliens is a federal crime--aiding and abetting. If you know someone's an illegal alien, and you're offering food, clothing, shelter--even if they're ill--you're committing a felony."

'They Feel Justified'

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