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INS Investigating 2 Churches That Aid Aliens

Times Staff Writer

Two Catholic churches that offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants--including historic Our Lady Queen of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles--are under investigation by immigration authorities who contend that the churches’ leaders are encouraging others to break the law.

“We’re not singling out a movement,” Immigration and Naturalization Service Los Angeles District Director Ernest Gustafson said Friday. He was referring to the sanctuary movement, a loose network of churches nationwide that offer refuge to undocumented immigrants and refugees.

Rather, immigration authorities are “watching” the activities of priests and organizers at the two churches who, according to Gustafson, have said, in essence, “come and get me.”

Existence of the investigation was disclosed at a press conference called by authorities Friday to announce the arrest of a Salvadoran national who admitted breaking more than $10,000 worth of windows at INS headquarters at the Federal Building downtown.

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Wilson Menendez, 27, told authorities he took a metal pipe to the series of large pane glass windows and doors at the offices late last Tuesday night because he was “angry at the U.S. government,” according to immigration officials.

Linked to Church

Gustafson and INS Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell said the man charged with the vandalism was among the hundreds of illegal immigrants who nightly seek shelter at the downtown church also known as La Placita.

They added that public statements made by three priests at La Placita and at nearby Mission Dolores--including an opinion article published Wednesday in The Times--"encourage” lawlessness.

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In the article, the priests said they will continue to provide food and shelter to the undocumented as they have for the last two years. They also condemned fines and prison terms authorized by the 1986 immigration reform law against employers who knowingly hire aliens. They encouraged employers to continue hiring the undocumented despite the law, arguing that basic human rights of the undocumented are above the law.

“To the extent that we openly aid, abet and harbor the undocumented, we indeed are breaking the law. The Gospel would have us do no other,” said the article, written by Father Luis Olivares, pastor at La Placita; his associate pastor, Father Michael Kennedy, and Father Gregory Boyle, pastor at Mission Dolores.

Ezell called “outrageous” the “audacity of three Catholic priests to say publicly that people ought to disobey the law. . . . That attitude produces this kind of action (the vandalism.)”

Gustafson added that if warranted, INS officials will ask the U.S. attorney’s office to file criminal charges against the priests. But he declined to comment further.

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Boyle called immigration officials’ attempts to link the vandalism to the priests’ statement “outrageous.”

‘It’s Outrageous’

“We called for civil disobedience, which the spirit of the sanctuary movement has always maintained to be nonviolent and non-destructive,” he said. “It’s outrageous that (immigration officials) would try to connect our statements to the breaking of windows.”

While immigration officials have threatened to take action against the priests in the past and the two sides have engaged in numerous public verbal battles, this is the first time that immigration authorities have mentioned they are conducting a criminal investigation.

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