You wouldn't expect that Presbyterian congregants in a small Midwestern town would publicly defy the federal government. But that's exactly what's happening. The Central Presbyterian Church of Massillon, Ohio, along with about 200 other churches across the country, has carefully decided to engage in civil disobedience. These people—many of whom would hesitate to jaywalk—run the risk of $2,000 fines and 10 years imprisonment.
Their crime is giving sanctuary to refugees from the killing in Guatemala and El Salvador. The congregants note that churches have historically served as sanctuaries from natural and political disasters. The Reagan administration, however, will have none of it. It says that the sanctuary movement is harboring, and conspiring to harbor, illegal aliens. It has prosecuted 20 individuals in the movement and deported thousands of Central Americans to their homelands.
Do the beleaguered Central Americans themselves have any legal recourse? Ostensibly they do. Federal law says that any alien who demonstrates "well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group, or political opinion" can get refugee status and remain here.
Unfortunately, though, the Reagan administration has a peculiar definition of "well-founded fear of persecution" that excludes most Salvadorans and Guatemalans. In the first half of fiscal 1984, it granted only 3.3 percent of the applications by Salvadorans for refugee status—and they're from a nation where, as Amnesty International put it, the government is involved in "a systematic and widespread program of torture, mutilation, 'disappearance,' and the individual and mass extrajudicial execution of men, women and children."
It's impossible to learn the fate of most deportees, but the ACLU Political Asylum Project has evidence of many being murdered, tortured, and imprisoned. There are undoubtedly others. Still, according to the Wall Street Journal, the administration continues to deport about 500 more every month.
How does the administration rationalize its policy? While it admits that there is "ongoing civil strife" in El Salvador, it contends that most of the Central Americans aren't really refugees from persecution. They're just trying to escape poverty, and that's not sufficient grounds to grant them refugee status. "El Salvador has a long history of cases of immigration to the U.S. for economic reasons," State Department human-rights chief Elliott Abrams told the Journal.
Abrams and his colleagues' argument is as hypocritical as it is inhumane. After all, an administration supposedly devoted to economic freedom is denying entry to people who want to find a job, work hard, and better themselves, which most immigrants do, given the chance. Perhaps Abrams and his friends need to be reminded of the immense contribution immigrants have made to the American economy—including those who immigrated "for economic reasons." One wonders if Abrams's own ancestors would have made it past Ellis Island if the policies he defends had been in force.
In the case of Central America, distinguishing between refugees from persecution and people who want to escape poverty is especially senseless, since political and economic oppression there are intertwined. Look at Guatemala. Aryeh Neier of Americas Watch, a respected human-rights group, has pointed out that the army's strategy is to terrorize Indian peasants in areas where guerrillas are thought to enjoy support, destroy the peasants' crops and livestock, drive them into the hills until they're near starvation, then distribute food to those who submit to "reeducation" and settlement in "model" villages. When peasants are lucky enough to make it to the Rio Grande, are they arriving "for economic reasons" or because of "well-founded fear of persecution"? Our government claims to consider each case thoroughly—often after hearings lasting 10–15 minutes—then it deports the vast majority.
It is against this official inhumanity and half-truth that the Massillon Presbyterians commit civil disobedience and provide sanctuary to four Salvadorans. Part of the historical right of sanctuary that the church invokes is the tradition that the power of civil authority stops at the cathedral gates. In this respect, the movement's vision is too limited. It is indecent for the government to prosecute any individuals who disobey evil laws, whether their disobedience takes place in churches, grocery stores, or Elks Club halls. But that is beside the larger point, which is that the courageous people of the sanctuary movement are acting morally and defying reprehensible government policy. We wish them well.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Harboring Illegals".