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Border Patrol Criticized for Arrests in Church

Times Staff Writer

In an action that Diocese of Orange Bishop Norman F. McFarland called “stupid and irresponsible,” a U.S. Border Patrol agent entered a Catholic Church in Orange on Tuesday during morning Mass 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 seek work, and the seven were being questioned by agents late Tuesday. About 160 people were arrested in all, a Border Patrol spokesman said.

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 Catholic Church, two blocks north of Chapman, “so that we would be safe,” he said.

Asked for Papers

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About five minutes later, a Border Patrol officer entered the church, as a priest was still saying the 6:30 a.m. Mass, and asked eight or nine men in the last two pews if they had papers, Jose said. “None of them had any, and they were taken away,” Jose said. “I started to reach into my pocket, as if I had some, and they left me alone.”

But Border Patrol spokesman Dana Cunningham said the officer was in the church only for about 30 seconds, after following two suspected illegal aliens “in hot pursuit” just inside a rear entrance. When the officer identified himself and asked the two men 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.”

Dan Zatyko, a businessman who was attending the Mass, said he “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.”

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Robert Moschorak, associate regional commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said, “We don’t under normal circumstances conduct any kind of operations inside a church.” But, he said, no law precludes agents from following suspected illegal aliens into any kind of building if they are trying to flee.

Pastor’s Viewpoint

“You have to take the totality of fact into consideration here.”

Father John Martens, pastor at La Purisima, said the priest who was performing the Mass speaks little English and might not have seen what was going on.

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“If I had been saying the Mass, there would have been a very strong protest,” Martens said. “This is something you would expect in a totalitarian state, not in the United States.”

McFarland said he had no immediate plans to protest to immigration authorities, even though he considered the Border Patrol’s behavior “a real stupid thing and irresponsible. Nothing warrants them entering a church and disrupting a service. . . . I hope they will realize they made a mistake and this isn’t the way to go.”

In Los Angeles, Father Gregory Boyle called the INS action “a violation of a longstanding tradition that the church is a place where people can expect to be safeguarded.” Boyle is pastor of Mission Dolores, which offers sanctuary to illegal immigrants.

“I think it’s unconscionable that immigration agents would enter a church and forceably remove the undocumented,” Boyle said.

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Boyle is one of three Los Angeles priests under investigation by the INS, which contends that the three encourage lawlessness by harboring illegal aliens.


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