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Trial Pitting U.S. Against Sanctuary Movement : Case in Tucson Turns Spotlight on Growing Operation for Smuggling Aliens

Times Staff Writer

On Oct. 1, 1984, Salomon Graham, a veteran smuggler of illegal aliens and federal informant, strapped a recording device to his chest and drove to meet a group of suspected alien-smugglers under investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“This is C-I (Confidential Informant) 92,” Graham said into the hidden microphone as he drove into a parking lot. “I am at the Camelback Presbyterian Church.”

He walked inside the church. The next thing he heard, according to a transcript of his tape, was “everybody reciting a prayer,” and then a Salvadoran man describing to the congregation the violence he said had forced his family to flee.

Bugged Church Service

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Graham’s recording may have been the first time that the U.S. government bugged an open church service.

“To my knowledge, the U.S. government never had to before,” said Don Reno, special assistant U.S. attorney, in an interview. “But this group was conspiring to smuggle illegal aliens into the United States, and they were using the national media to publicly recruit more co-conspirators.”

Reno said that such “consentual monitoring” by an informant, as opposed to wiretapping, did not require prior court approval.

Thus, the federal government secretly probed what was probably the most public alien-smuggling ring in U.S. history: the sanctuary movement that has openly professed to sheltering about 2,000 aliens from immigration agents.

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The investigation ended last January when a federal grand jury indicted 16 members of the religion-based movement on felony conspiracy charges, including 71 counts of smuggling, harboring and transporting illegal aliens.

Three Plead Guilty

Three defendants later pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Charges against two others have been dropped.

The trial of the remaining 11--an ecumenical rainbow that includes two Catholic priests, a Presbyterian minister, two Quakers, two Methodists, a Unitarian, two Catholic lay workers, and a Catholic nun--started Friday after a summer of pretrial motions. It is expected to last into January.

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Endorsed by Churches

The trial pits the federal government against a growing movement endorsed by nearly 300 churches and synagogues, 10 universities, and half a dozen city councils that contend they have a moral duty, even a legal right, to help people who claim they are fleeing for their lives.

“The most fundamental issue (in this case),” Reno asserted in an interview, “is whether persons in disagreement with their government can take the law into their own hands and interpret that law in a way which is in clear violation of its purpose.”

In his opening statement to the jury Friday, Reno was careful to keep religion out of the courtroom--even to the extent of referring to Sister Darlene Nicgorski, a Phoenix nun, as Miss Nicgorski. He then described in detail how defendants had carried out a “criminal enterprise” by guiding aliens through a hole in the border fence, or by giving them American school uniforms or fraudulent documents to bring them to the United States.

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Certain Evidence Barred

In a series of lengthy pretrial rulings, U.S. District Judge Earl H. Carroll has made it clear that he considers the proceedings to be an “alien-smuggling case,” and will not allow evidence dealing with international law or conditions in foreign countries, or with defendants’ motives or religious beliefs.

He also rejected a defense motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the federal government was guilty of misconduct in its use of Graham and another informer. Both received immunity from prosecution on alien-smuggling charges and $14,000 for their work.

The motion charged that recordings violated First Amendment rights of dozens of worshipers not involved in the investigation and caused a “chilling effect” in many congregations.

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The second informant, Jesus Cruz, was described by sanctuary volunteers as an avuncular, genial fellow in his late 50s who had been an “uncle” to Central American children he helped transport in his undercover role as volunteer. Cruz even sent Christmas cards to children as part of a ruse to secure their addresses for subsequent arrest, sanctuary workers said.

“ ‘God bless you, father,’ he would say to me, and give me a hug,” said defendant Tony Clark, associate priest at Sacred Heart Church in Nogales.

No Ruling on Motion

Carroll has yet to rule on one remaining defense motion charging that the Justice Department “selectively prosecuted” movement members for political reasons while all but ignoring ranchers who induce workers to cross the border to work in their fields.

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Documents submitted in support of that motion draw on investigators’ files from the day the INS opened its sanctuary file on March 26, 1982, through Jan. 14, 1985, when the defendants were indicted.

The first memo was written by a Border Patrol agent who attended a press conference staged by a defendant, the Rev. John Fife, in 1982 to announce that his Tucson Presbyterian church was declaring itself a sanctuary for Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees.

The agent described the event as the beginning of a “ploy” to “demonstrate to the public that the U.S. government via . . . jack-booted Gestapo Border Patrol agents (thinks) nothing of breaking down the doors of their churches to drag Jesus Christ out to be tortured and murdered.”

An INS intelligence agent in Yuma noted in 1983 that a story about the movement appeared in a Catholic-Episcopal magazine with what he decribed as a “left-wing format of stories about nuclear disarmament, U.S. foreign policy, (and) black and poor peoples movements.”

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Support From Jackson

In September, 1984, a Los Angeles-based INS agent attended two sanctuary events in Los Angeles, including one on Sept. 30 in which Jesse Jackson, who had sought the Democratic presidential nomination, gave support for the movement and “expressed the usual anti-Reagan sentiment,” the agent reported.

“Of course, everyone knew this would be a controversial case because priests and nuns were being indicted,” Reno said in an interview, denying that the case had been prosecuted for political reasons.

Besides, he added, “They singled themselves out for prosecution.”

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Since 1982, leaders of the movement have welcomed interviews by the news media and allowed television cameras to follow them occasionally as they transported refugees across the country.

They have distributed thousands of brochures, conducted public caravans of aliens through downtown streets and established a toll-free telephone number to widen their network. Fife even posted a billboard-sized sign in front of his church announcing in Spanish that the church was a “sanctuary for the oppressed of Central America.”

Informants to Testify

But such activities did not constitute the sort of evidence that he needed for trial, Reno said. “It was necessary to make the recordings to corroborate informants’ reports,” he said. The informants will testify at the trial, but the tapes will not be introduced because they are unnecessary and “difficult to work with,” Reno added.

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Defense attorneys said they suspect that Reno will not introduce the tapes because they could reveal the defendants’ motivations.

The defendants say they are following ancient traditions of sanctuary. Moreover, they add, they were acting in accordance with international treaties and the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act, both of which require countries to grant asylum to anyone who has legitimate fear of persecution in his homeland.

Contrasted with some nonviolent movements of the past, they contend that they are not practicing civil disobedience. “It is the INS who is violating the law, not us,” asserted Jim Corbett, 52, a Quaker and retired rancher who, with Fife, is considered a co-founder of the movement.

Carroll has ruled that the defendants have the right to mount an unusual but legitimate “advice of counsel” defense that contends they were innocent because they had not intended to break the law, had consulted attorneys, and had been advised that what they were doing was legal.

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