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Sanctuary : Church Takes Risks to Aid Central American Emigres

Times Staff Writer

Although she has been in the United States for two years, Maria Ramirez’s eyes still fill with tears when she recalls bloody scenes from her homeland.

Decapitated corpses. Heads on a park bench. Electrical burns on bodies. Needle points in eyes. Skinned faces. Young boys hanging from trees. An entire village massacred.

“I have seen thousands of horrible things in my country,” said Ramirez, a refugee from war-torn El Salvador who asked that she not be identified by her real name, fearing deportation and retaliation against relatives back home.

In a recent interview in Pico Rivera, Ramirez, a former teacher, and her husband, Jose, who was a principal, described life in their country, their flight north to the United States two years ago, and the help they received from the sanctuary movement at the Pico Rivera United Methodist Church. The two former educators were the first family given refuge by the congregation at the Pico Rivera church in February, 1983.

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Threats of Torture, Death

Today, the predominantly Latino church continues to serve as a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing the violence of civil war, people the congregation feels are threatened with torture or death.

Convinced of the danger most refugees would face if returned to their country, the congregation says it will offer them help, despite the recent nationwide arrests and indictments of 22 sanctuary workers, two of whom have been convicted of transporting undocumented immigrants in Texas.

Depending on how they help undocumented immigrants, members of the Pico Rivera congregation could face a minimum penalty of five years in prison and a $2,000 fine for harboring undocumented emigres.

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“These indictments, arrests and persecutions by the U.S. government have only strengthened the sanctuary movement,” the Rev. Fernando Santillana, pastor of the church, said in a recent interview in the church offices.

Upholding Law of God

Like other sanctuary leaders, Santillana contends that the congregation is upholding American law, as well as the law of God, by protecting life. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there is no way for the congregation to know whether those they have helped qualify for asylum under United States law.

The 1980 Refugee Act provides asylum on grounds of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution” back home. The federal government has sent thousands of refugees back to El Salvador and Guatemala, saying that most of the refugees have fled for economic reasons and do not meet the conditions for special entry into this country.

“We understand and know that the lives of many of the refugees are in danger if they remain in El Salvador or are deported to their country,” he said. “We have a responsibility to God and those who face persecution and death. And though the threat of imprisonment exists, we must respond to the needs of the suffering people in Central America.”

The congregation has converted a classroom into living quarters and has assisted 29 families of refugees with food, clothing, housing, jobs and language and vocational classes.

“In reality, they could be people who are lying or taking advantage of us,” Santillana said. “But we are Christians and even if they lie to us, we cannot deny help to anyone. . .. If we have to be absolutely sure before we act or help, then we are not a true sanctuary.

“The only way for us to make sure they are political refugees is for us to do what the government is doing--to start investigating and discriminating.”

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Must Submit Affidavits

To be granted asylum, political refugees must submit affidavits proving that they would be persecuted in their home country, according to Lawrence Chamblee, special assistant attorney for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“The question of asylum will be decided on the strength of what the alien has offered,” he said, adding that details of arrests in the homeland might be accepted as proof.

“Many asylum applications are groundless,” he said. “For them to say, ‘The police have me on a death list. Don’t send me back,’ is not enough.”

“Very often the State Department recommends against granting asylum,” he said, adding that those whose statements are not determined to carry sufficient weight will be deported.

“If they come because the United States is a better place to live, they are not (political) refugees,” he said.

Border Control

Restrictions on entry into the country, including applications for political asylum, were established because “any nation is concerned with the control over its borders,” said William Martin, an INS attorney.

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However, a bill introduced Jan. 30 by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) would halt the deportation of Salvadorans for two years, at which time Congress would consider extending the period of refuge. The Reagan Administration opposes the bill.

At the same time, California Sen. Alan Cranston has condemned the prosecution of sanctuary workers, charging that the Reagan Administration refuses to recognize Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants as political refugees “because doing so would be tantamount to admitting that death squads and terrorism exist there.”

And refugees like the Ramirezes argue that it is impossible for them to prove they would be killed or tortured.

Insisting they are political refugees, the Ramirezes pointed to their professions as proof that they had no economic reason to leave their country, though they conceded they decided not to stay in Mexico because prospects are better in the United States.

Jose Ramirez, an educator for eight years, said, “We are political, not economic, refugees. We had no need to come here to suffer.”

Works in Factory

Ramirez, who said working outside the teaching profession is difficult, now works in a carpet factory, earning $100 a week.

The money is worth more than Salvadoran currency, but the cost of living here is high, his wife said. “At home we worked less, bought more with our money, enjoyed our profession and our surroundings.”

The couple said they fled their country after death squads escalated massacres in 1981. In the last five years, an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in El Salvador, according to figures released by Amnesty International U.S.A.

The death toll, Jose Ramirez said, includes many teachers who were accused of inciting people against the government.

One teacher, his wife said, was shot, though his students clung to him in a vain effort to save his life. Another teacher friend, who disappeared one day, was found lying in the street, riddled with bullets, she recalled.

Mutilation, Murder

Tortures are “fueled by a furious power,” he said as he recounted numerous examples of mutilation, rape and murder that had become commonplace in El Salvador.

“It was horrible, horrible,” he remembered, adding that they left in December, 1981, after learning that he was under investigation by the government because he allowed peasants to use printing equipment for anti-government leaflets.

“If we had stayed, we would’ve been killed,” he said.

Declining to be photographed, he said, “If they don’t find us, they’ll get even with our families who are still in El Salvador.”

Jose Ramirez, whose son from a previous marriage is a guerrilla, fled to Nicaragua, which was the closest border and where he hid for a month before returning to El Salvador for his wife.

Lived on Streets

With the government closing in on them, Maria Ramirez said, the couple left for Guatemala, where they asked for asylum but were advised to seek it in Mexico. Living on the streets there for two years, they sold shoes, cosmetics and clothing to survive, Maria Ramirez said.

But, she said, the couple left Mexico because “we were tired of living on the streets, and the economic situation was terrible.”

A coyote, as smugglers are called, helped them cross the U.S. border aboard a freight train, which they rode to Indio, she said. There they hitched a ride with a Chicano family. Once in Los Angeles, they contacted an organization formed to aid Central American refugees. Its directors found shelter for the family for two weeks and then contacted the Pico Rivera pastor.

It was February, 1983, just about the time that the church had decided to declare itself a sanctuary. The congregation agreed to take the family in, giving them a place to sleep in the converted classroom.

Maria Ramirez said the church also helped them with food, clothing and English classes while Santillana gave them a $25 weekly allowance.

During their three-month stay at the sanctuary, the couple saved enough money for an apartment. The family moved out of the sanctuary and now lives in another Southeast-area city.

“The help they gave us was like a great healing,” the husband said. “We are very grateful for the work they have done and think it would be good for them to maintain the sanctuary. People like us need food, medicine and other basics when we arrive.”

Stressful Adjustment

The Ramirezes said they have found the adjustment to a new language, job, culture and climate stressful. “If anything,” the husband said, “we would go back if we could. It is very hard being in this country. We don’t feel good.”

Neither does Antonio Martinez, who arrived in February and is now staying at the sanctuary.

Echoing Ramirez, Martinez, 24, said he fled because of the repression and not for economic reasons.

“It is difficult to be a young person in my country,” said Martinez, who was a fisherman. “You have three choices: You can join the army, you can join the guerrillas or you can leave the country.”

Martinez said he was accused of being a guerrilla, arrested in 1982 and thrown into a jail for two months. Although he had no scars, he said his fingers and hands had been beaten with an iron pipe.

Saying that the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and deprived of food, Martinez recalled, “We would ask for water and they would give us urine.”

Though he cannot confirm the truth of the refugees’ stories, Pastor Santillana pointed to Census figures that show there were 94,447 Salvadorans in the United States in 1979 and to estimates of 500,000 Salvadorans who are here now, with or without appropriate documents.

“That tells us something terrible is happening in El Salvador,” he said.

Slain Archbishop

More churches will declare themselves sanctuaries, Santillana predicted, especially this month when they observe the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken critic of the Salvadoran regime who was slain at his altar in San Salvador in 1980.

Referring to the arrest of 16 sanctuary workers in Arizona, Santillana said, “They (the Reagan Administration) figure if they persecute people in Arizona (where the sanctuary movement began) that they can chop the head of the movement.”

Those arrested in Arizona on Jan. 23 included three nuns, two priests and a minister. They were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy, smuggling undocumented immigrants and transporting, concealing and harboring persons in the country illegally. They face trial in April and maximum penalties of five years imprisonment and fines ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.

Though Santillana is not financially prepared to fight an indictment, the United Methodist Church has created a fund for the movement, is supporting those who have been arrested and is calling for more churches to become sanctuaries.

Like Santillana, members of the congregation hold to the belief that caring for others is an act of faith, an act that must somehow be preserved.

“I believe the love of human beings has to come first,” said church member Josefina Gonzales. “We all have to help each other. That’s why this world is the way it is. We have lost faith in one another.”


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