Sanctuary Movement Just Smugglers, U.S. Says

Times Staff Writer

The sanctuary movement--a nationwide, church-based effort to help Central Americans resettle illegally in the United States--is not an exercise in freedom of religion but a criminal conspiracy, a federal prosecutor charged Tuesday as he launched his final assault on 11 church workers standing trial here for their sanctuary activities.

“The drafters of the Constitution (and) the law of this land do not permit people to engage in criminal acts and then say it was a religious exercise,” U.S. Atty. Donald M. Reno Jr. said in closing arguments to the jury in the government’s widely publicized attempt to break the sanctuary movement here.

“Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association,” Reno said, “do not immunize criminal conduct. There is no immunity under the First Amendment.”

As he has since the trial began last October, Reno continued to try to narrow the case to a simple issue of smuggling illegal aliens into the country.


References to Conspiracy

His day-long argument at the lectern in U.S. District Court--during which some of the defendants appeared to be dozing--was salted with references to “the smuggling act,” “smuggling parlance,” “criminal partnership” and “conspiracy.”

All 11 defendants, some of whom are the founders of the nationwide sanctuary movement, are charged with conspiracy to violate U.S. immigration laws by agreeing to help people they consider refugees from politically oppressive Central American nations enter the United States.

In addition, some are also charged with direct violations of immigration laws--a total of 30 felony and misdemeanor charges. Reno on Tuesday dropped one felony charge against Margaret Jean Hutchison and Mary K. Doan Espinoza when U.S. District Judge Earl H. Carroll found that the two felony counts overlapped with misdemeanor charges and gave Reno the option of which to drop.


The sanctuary movement was born here in 1980, after a group of 13 Salvadorans died in the southern Arizona desert while trying to enter the United States illegally.

250 Churches Involved

The movement has since spread to 250 churches nationwide. Last week, New Mexico declared itself a sanctuary state.

But, Reno told the jurors, “ ‘Good’ is not a defense to intentional acts of crime . . . an alien smuggling conspiracy. Political, religious, moral or ‘what the ultimate good would be'--that is not an element in this case.”


Trial testimony came from three undercover agents and 14 Central Americans, and Reno also attacked what he called “The sanctuary no recuerdo memory-lapse syndrome.” Reno said that the aliens gave vivid testimony except when it came to identifying those who helped them, at which time they pleaded no recuerdo (I don’t remember.)

“The aliens in this case,” he told the jury, “all had an obvious reluctance to recall the facts critical to the government’s proving its case.”