The Sanctuary Movement on Trial


SANCTUARY A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision by Ann Crittenden (Weidenfeld & Nicholson: $19.95; 384 pp.) CONVICTIONS OF THE HEART Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement by Miriam Davidson (University of Arizona Press: $19.95; 187 pp.)

Both these accounts of the origins of the Sanctuary movement, its intramural quarrels, good works, ordeal by law enforcement snooping, indictment and conviction in 1986 for “alien-smuggling” are, I think, accurate, careful and informative.

Ann Crittenden, a former New York Times reporter, was not present for most of the day-to-day courtroom wrangling, but did a lot of post-conviction interviewing of the principals. Miriam Davidson, a Tucson writer, filed regularly and copiously throughout the trial for the Christian Science Monitor and is very well-connected to some of the Sanctuary movement’s leading thinkers and doers, such as the Quaker James Corbett, whose writings and other acts helped the movement to evolve and become significant, though Corbett was, oddly, later acquitted of any charges.

There are differences: As a pacifist (see her final paragraph), and a supporter of the Sanctuary movement, Davidson--unlike Crittenden--would not choose to liken the philosophical Corbett to his foremost nemesis, INS investigator James Rayburn, an ex-cowboy who, among other irregularities, employed real, alien-smuggling felons as his undercover cops. When Crittenden’s journalese turns insensitive, she describes principal defense attorney Robert Hirsch as ". . . a long and lanky Jew who had just turned fifty, twice divorced. . . .” But Crittenden is also capable of good solid reportage and makes her best points through understatement: The Hon. Earl H. Carroll, federal circuit judge for Arizona, “was not known as a friend of the dissident, the poor, or the oppressed. . . .”


A successful utilities lawyer, Carroll believed in the law, and the law had rewarded him with memberships in clubs and a good income and investments. Carroll wanted to be fair to the prosecution, so he disallowed nearly every effort, in court, before the jury, of the Sanctuary movement’s attorneys to discuss the wars in Central America, the actual practices of the INS at the Mexican Border with Arizona, the use of torture, Death Squads and spooks with tape recorders in churches gathering “evidence” while he allowed the government to liken the movement’s behavior to that of narcotics smugglers by referring to some of their members as “The Nogales Connection.”

When Carroll regularly admonished the accused and their attorneys to work within the system, they just as regularly tried to reply that the system often was a problem for undocumented aliens. The system did not wish to process Salvadoran refugee petitions for asylum because El Salvador was an anti-Communist client state of the United States in Central America and many of the refugees had terrible stories to tell about U.S.-supported counterinsurgency terror; and also because, in this instance, as the defense pointed out once, though Carroll would not disqualify himself, his honor owned shares in a joint U.S.-Salvadoran industrial enterprise whose labor relations had driven more than one of the refugees across the U.S. border seeking sanctuary.

Before the jury was selected, Carroll ruled affirmatively on a series of motions by special U.S. Atty. Don Reno, which made it a certainty that the only evidence to be discussed in the courtroom would be in furtherance of the prosecution’s allegations that this was “an alien-smuggling conspiracy.” Carroll was always threatening the defense with contempt citations and warning against any attempt to incite the jury to nullify his instructions and vote with their consciences.

After voting to convict all but two of the defendants, a juror admitted to me that she personally thought the judge was “very one-sided"; but since he’d insisted that they had no power to interpret Sanctuary’s behavior but had only to “deal with Mr. Reno’s evidence,” she was brow-beaten, along with some others, into voting to convict. That conviction will be reviewed on appeal late this coming fall.


Both Davidson and Crittenden are restrained as they tell the story of Sanctuary’s entrapment and conviction.

Davidson is particularly informative about some of the incidents of horror perpetrated on refugees in Arizona and the resulting desperate Sanctuary forays across the border to locate and help refugees. Through interviews with Corbett, the Rev. John Fife, and prosecutor Reno, Crittenden shows us the church workers’ practical heroism and their foibles alike.

Other accounts of Sanctuary’s ordeal on behalf of the refugees would probably not improve on these books unless one were written by a satirist of the banal on the order of Sinclair Lewis, or, better still, Gogol. There are disturbing similarities between the judge’s words in this case and those of Gustave Flaubert’s Buvard and Pecuchet.

The Sanctuary cause, like literature, sprang from authentic human empathy, akin to love, and the harm that comes from a lack of imagination. Given what these books set out to do as journalism, to trace how Sanctuary’s openness was ensnared by federal rascals operating as the law, and the results, they achieve their own aims well enough.