Crossing the Line

Harold Ezell, regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, showed sensitivity when he called it “regrettable” that a Border Patrol agent had arrested suspected illegal aliens inside a Roman Catholic church. But it will take more than that for his agency to repair its relationships with the church and Latinos.

The incident occurred last week in Orange County. A Border Patrol officer was questioning men in a neighborhood where many Latinos congregate in the hope of being picked up as day laborers. The agent followed two men into La Purisima Church, where a Mass was being celebrated, and arrested them and five other people who were sitting in the last pew.

Bishop Norman F. MacFarland, the head of the Diocese of Orange, called the incident “stupid and irresponsible,” and discussed the matter with Ezell. The regional commissioner, who has sometimes spoken out a little too quickly and too forcefully on the complex and emotional immigration issue, did not apologize. But he did say that INS agents would not make it a habit to pursue suspected illegal immigrants into churches. “Our policy has not changed. We’re not going to churches and kicking down doors looking for illegal aliens,” he said.

That statement doesn’t go far enough. For at the same time that the commissioner was downplaying the La Purisima incident, he acknowledged that INS agents were investigating the activities of priests at two churches near downtown Los Angeles who have offered aid and shelter to illegal immigrants. Ezell wants to determine if the priests have broken any laws through their activities, which they admit and justify as essential to their ministry and their interpretation of the Gospel. The stance taken by these priests and other advocates of the so-called Sanctuary Movement raises difficult and profound questions that have never been fully answered by this nation’s courts. The tradition of sanctuary dates to the Middle Ages, but it has never been fully tested against the Constitution’s principle of the separation of church and state. That is because both civil and religious authorities in this country have wisely chosen to avoid confrontation on cases that raise the issue. That is what the INS should do in this case.


INS agents round up more illegal immigrants than they can handle simply by patrolling the places that they normally target--usually factories, fields and other workplaces. They will not find many more by looking for them on church property. And it is unlikely that a handful of priests and other sanctuary activists can hide many people from them, either. In plain fact, entering church property and investigating the activities of priests serves no useful purpose for the INS, and is actually counterproductive.

For the last two years, as the INS has worked to implement the nation’s new immigration law,it has relied on the help of various community agencies, many affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. That working relationship has not always been easy, but it has been useful. It has so improved that many Latinos are beginning to trust an agency that they once feared. Incidents like the one in Orange County set back the relationship. That is why INS officials throughout the country must make it clear that, no matter how zealously they enforce immigration laws, they will not violate the traditional sanctity of churches.