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INS Arrests Aliens Inside Orange Church

Times Staff Writer

In an action that Diocese of Orange Bishop Norman F. McFarland called “stupid and irresponsible,” the U.S. Border Patrol entered a Roman Catholic church in Orange during an early morning Mass on Tuesday and arrested seven people believed to be illegal aliens.

The arrests occurred during a sweep along East Chapman Avenue, where scores of men gather each day to get work. About 160 people were arrested in all during the sweep, a Border Patrol spokesman said.

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said an agent pursued two suspected illegal aliens into the church.

However, at least two men who were in the church at the time said the agent asked other Latinos who were seated in pews for proof of legal residency.

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“We don’t under normal circumstances conduct any kind of operations inside a church,” said Robert Moschorak, associate regional commissioner for the INS.

But he said no law precludes agents from following suspected illegal aliens into any kind of building if they are trying to flee.

“You have to take the totality of facts into consideration here,” Moschorak said. “What caused (the agent) to be in the church premises was that people ran from (agents) seeking to avoid arrest.”

Border Patrol spokesman Dana Cunningham said the agent followed two suspected illegal aliens “in hot pursuit” into a side entrance near the rear of La Purisima Catholic Church at 11712 Hewes Ave.

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The men took seats in a pew just inside the door, and when the agent identified himself and asked the suspects to step outside, they did--along with five others who were in the same pew, Cunningham said.

“There were other people there when the general question was asked,” Cunningham said. “They must have been thinking that they fit the general circumstances.”

Inside for 30 Seconds

The agent was in the church for about 30 seconds, Cunningham said.

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Two men who witnessed the arrests gave different accounts.

A 40-year-old man from the Mexican state of Puebla, who would identify himself only as Jose, said he was standing on Chapman Avenue when he saw the commotion of the sweep a few blocks away. He and a few other men headed for La Purisima, about two blocks north of Chapman, “so that we would be safe,” he said.

About five minutes later, a few more men came into the church, followed by a Border Patrol officer, as Father Joachim Tu still was saying the 6:30 a.m. Mass, Jose said.

The officer asked the men in the last two pews--including those who had been there for several minutes--whether they had papers, Jose said.

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“None of them had any, and they were taken away,” he said. “I started to reach into my pocket, as if I had some, and they left me alone.”

Dan Zatyko, a Tustin businessman who was attending Mass, gave a similar account: “I couldn’t believe what I saw. . . . The officer came in during consecration, the most holy part of the Mass. . . . It really shocked me, when I went down to receive Communion, I saw a man hiding behind the piano.”

Celebrant Didn’t See It

Tu, a Vietnamese priest who speaks little English, said he did not see the agent enter the church and remove the men. The pews where the men were sitting are in the corner of the church most distant from the altar.

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Father John Martens, pastor at La Purisima, said the Border Patrol demonstrated “wanton disregard for both the place and ceremonies being performed.”

“If I had been saying the Mass, there would have been a very strong protest,” he said. “This is something you would expect in a totalitarian state, not in the United States. . . . This better never happen again.”

Bishop McFarland said he was “astonished” by the Border Patrol’s behavior.

“It’s a real stupid thing and irresponsible,” McFarland said. “Nothing warrants them entering a church and disrupting a service. There was no question of public safety being involved. I put it to a lack of discretion.”

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But the bishop said he has no immediate plans to officially protest to INS officials. “I hope they will realize they made a mistake and this isn’t the way to go.”

The INS has a general policy of not entering churches to search for illegal aliens.

However, the agency is investigating three Los Angeles priests whom INS accuses of encouraging lawlessness by harboring illegal immigrants. One of those priests, Father Gregory Boyle--pastor of Dolores Mission Church near downtown Los Angeles, a sanctuary church--said the Border Patrol had violated “a longstanding tradition that the church is a place where people can expect to be safeguarded.”

Declarations of Sanctuary

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In recent years, many churches across the country have declared themselves sanctuaries for illegal aliens from Central America and Mexico fleeing political turmoil and economic difficulties.

But the concept of sanctuary--which developed during the Middle Ages, when the Roman Catholic Church was more powerful than today--"has basically been rejected” in the United States and Europe, UCLA School of Law Professor Stephen C. Yeazell said.

“So far as I know, there is no legal basis for the modern invocation of sanctuary,” Yeazell said. “I think the claim that is made is a kind of moral and religious claim . . . a primitive, moral notion that one ought to respect the sanctity of a church building or church services. But there is no legal requirement.”

Even in medieval times, Yeazell said, sanctuary meant something entirely different from how church groups want to use it today, he said: “An accused felon could flee to a church and claim sanctuary there--but what that meant is that he had to promise to leave the kingdom for the rest of his life and never come back. That was in exchange for his life, since all felonies carried the penalty of death.”

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Sandra B. Pettit, senior counsel for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, disputed Yeazell’s contention and said civil authorities have respected sanctuary provided by churches “for hundreds of years.”

Pettit also said the Border Patrol’s arrest of seven men when they were chasing just two raises constitutional issues: “You have Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure. The INS has to have much more than (Latino) appearance or poor appearance . . . to question a person about their immigration status. . . . What law was being violated?”

Plan to Return to Jobs

Immigration authorities transported most of those arrested in Tuesday’s sweep back to Tijuana the same afternoon, where many told The Times they planned to return to their jobs in Orange County as soon as they could cross the border again.

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However, the men arrested at the church were kept off the buses transporting the group and were being held at the San Clemente INS screening station for further questioning, said Charlie Geer, Border Patrol agent in charge.

“There have been some accusations made, and we want to find out what happened,” Geer said.

Times staff writers Jim Carlton, Lynn Smith and Mariann Hansen contributed to this story.


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