A young couple from El Salvador, who are considered “illegal aliens” by the U.S. government, have been offered refuge by Tabernacle Church, West Philadelphia. While the couple stays at the church, the congregation will provide them with food, clothing, medical assistance, transportation, counseling, protection, and legal help. Initially, it will mean round-the-clock monitoring by volunteers.
Despite the possibilities of fines and even imprisonment for harboring such refugees, the congregation had voted on January 22  to declare itself a “public sanctuary” for undocumented refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. The Rev. Jim McDonald. pastor of the joint Presbyterian and United Church of Christ congregation, said the action by the church came after months of study, discussion and prayer and that the people were “fully aware that this act involves civil disobedience which … could result in stiff penalties.”
“However, we finally were persuaded that in this case we would have to break a human law in order to obey God’s law. We regard public sanctuary to be an urgent, necessary act of justice and mercy as long as it is the policy of our government to deport these people back to an intolerable situation of torture, terror, violence, and death.”
Mr. McDonald said the church has been encouraged to take Its stand by pronouncements of both of the national bodies to which It is related — the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and by the network of more than 100 churches throughout the country who have already made similar declarations.
“Churches have long been Involved In resettling refugees,” noted Mr. McDonald. “Now we are trying to shield refugees and provide safe-haven. Being returned home is a ticket to death for these refugees or a situation filled with terror, violence, and repression. We’re protesting that policy of deportation. It’s both a humanitarian and a political act at the same time.”
A statement by the Tabernacle Church Council adopted on February 29  points out that these exiles from Central America clearly meet the requirements of the 1951
U.N. Convention and Protocol on Refugees. This agreement says nations of the world should offer refugee or asylum status to any people who cannot return to their countries without fear of persecution. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has recognized these Salvadorans and Guatemalans as political refugees and has called on members of the United Nations to offer them aid.
“The United States government has refused to recognize their right to status as political refugees, however, and Is currently deporting about one thousand of them every month,” the Tabernacle statement observes.
“In doing this,” the statement continues, “the U.S. government is actually violating its own laws. In the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States Congress adopted — as law — the standards of the U.N. Convention and Protocol. Under the laws passed by our Congress and signed by our President, we are legally required to comply with the request of the U.N. High Commissioner.”
The statement notes that the administration could, if It chooses, grant a legal status called “Extended Voluntary Departure” (EVD) to all refugees from a given country currently residing in the United States. In the past, it has granted EVD status to refugees from Poland, Haiti, and many other countries. Refugees with this status may legally stay in this country until it is safe for them to return.
“We believe our government should grant Extended Voluntary Departure status to all refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala,” the Tabernacle council urged. “We ask our government to enforce its immigration laws with fairness and compassion.”
Prior to the final vote (37 -5, two abstentions), the 100-member congregation had devoted most of a year studying the political situation In Latin America and the religious history of sanctuary.
“Our study showed us that the church in Latin America is undergoing a new reformation,” said Mr. McDonald. So much so that one Presbyterian missionary said, “Now In rural areas of Central America. your having a Bible or a picture of Archbishop Oscar Romero is all the authorities need to label you a subversive.”
“Sanctuary is known best to us in English Common Law with roots even earlier,” said Mr. McDonald. “In the Civil War, it was the underground railroad for slaves. In World War II, it was the French underground that gave sanctuary to escaping Jews. During the Vietnam War, draft resisters sought sanctuary in Canada. And how often have abused teenagers turned to the church for protection from harm until reconciliation Is reached?”
“The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not recognize sanctuary; there is no basis for it In federal law,” said Raymond Penn, deputy district director of INS’s Philadelphia Office, as quoted in the Inquirer. So far the INS has said that their policy is not to go into schools, or churches, or hospitals to find illegal refugees. Mr. Penn added, “Our priority right now is locating and removing illegal aliens employed in well-paying jobs and preventing illegal entries at our airport and seaport.”
Basically, the INS says these aliens are “economic refugees” — they are here to improve their lifestyle — not “political refugees.”
“But I met a doctor with a university degree who fled his country,” said Mr. McDonald. “He did not come here for economic reasons. He has no future here as a doctor, but his life is threatened back home. The U.S. government looks at refugees in economic terms and at foreign policy in political terms and can not seem to reconcile the two.”
In the last three years. 7000 refugees have applied for political refugee status and only 225 applications have been granted. It is estimated that there are 300,000 or more refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala already in the U.S., especially in Hispanic communities.
Under current law. it is a felony to harbor an illegal alien and every person who is arrested and successfully prosecuted could receive a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $2000 fine.
“What happens if they go after our church?” asked Marjorie Bergen, head of the sanctuary committee. “More than just arresting Jim McDonald. they could confiscate the church. They could fine everybody $2000, and the only way we could pay would be to sell our church.”
“The whole congregation Is liable,” said Mr. McDonald,” but it Is more likely that those most actively involved would be prosecuted.
“Not every church can be a sanctuary church but I do think that every church has to struggle with the issues to the point where they can find their own sense and expression of being in mission.
”We are a nation of refugees and immigrants. This country was founded and made great by people who were escaping religious and political persecution. Most of our ancestors were refugees. No matter what our politics or viewpoint, we must find some way of responding humanely and understanding what brings people to our country and why the United States is seen as a country of safe-haven.”