The federal government last week cracked down on church groups throughout the country and indicted 16 people, including several members of the clergy, for harboring and aiding Central American refugees. From the government's point of view the Central Americans are fleeing economic, not political, trouble at home and are therefore not entitled to be in this country. They are illegal aliens who must be deported. The refugees and their supporters say that the Central Americans would face death in their countries and should qualify for political asylum here. Almost 200 churches in the United States have openly declared themselves sanctuaries for people fleeing Central America, principally El Salvador and Guatemala.
Inasmuch as the government is empowered to determine who qualifies for refugee status and who does not, the church people are clearly breaking the law. But their law-breaking has a moral aspect to it that should not go overlooked. The law is unduly rigid in attempting to sort out the various motivations of people seeking to leave strife-torn parts of the world. These are obviously difficult decisions, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service ought to interpret the law in the most humanitarian way it can.
There is also the question of the methods that the government used in amassing its case. We are concerned about the practice of sending undercover agents with hidden tape recorders to infiltrate meetings held in churches. A church does not have the legal status of, say, an embassy, but the government ought to think more carefully about treading on the privacy normally associated with places of worship.
This is an unwelcome and apparently unnecessary expansion of government snooping. There were other ways for the government to gather evidence and build its case. As noted, the churches have made no secret of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Why, then, did the government feel it necessary to spy on them in this discomfiting way? Clergymen are as subject to the law as everyone, but these people are not criminals in any sense of the word, and should not be treated as such.