INS Curbs Pursuits Into Churches : Ezell Says Agents Must Ask Clerics’ Permission to Enter

Times Staff Writer

U. S. Border Patrol agents in San Diego and elsewhere in California will not pursue suspected illegal aliens into churches without first obtaining the permission of both their own supervisor and church representatives, a top immigration official said Monday.

The revised policy, enacted in response to a controversial case in Orange County last month, will also apply to suspected illegal aliens who are in schools and hospitals, a spokesman said.

During a sweep of the El Modena area in Orange last month, a Border Patrol agent chased two men into La Purisima Catholic Church, where a Mass was in progress, and ended up arresting them and five other undocumented Mexicans. All seven were returned to Mexico two days later.


The incident provoked a storm of outrage from church and Latino community leaders, who said immigration agents had violated the sanctity of the church and the men’s constitutional rights.

Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said at the time that the incident was “regrettable” because of the negative publicity it engendered but that the agent had followed the two men in “hot pursuit” and had done nothing improper.

Although Ezell said the incident was the first such case in his 6 1/2 years as regional commissioner, he said he would re-examine INS policy regarding entering churches. On Monday he announced that:

- In cases of “hot pursuit,” agents will not enter churches or other places of worship without the approval of supervisors, unless they are chasing suspected felons or if there is a serious threat of harm to the agent or the public. Supervisors are instructed to contact officials at the particular church and request their cooperation. Suspected illegal aliens fleeing Border Patrol agents will not be considered felons, Ezell said.

- In cases where there is no hot pursuit, immigration authorities must obtain permission from the district director or chief patrol agent. These supervisors are instructed to “weigh all factors, recognizing the sensitivity of the matter, such as possibly making the arrests at a site other than the place of worship,” before granting permission.

The new guidelines, Ezell said, “maintained the integrity of our policy for a long time--we don’t go into churches, schools and hospitals looking for illegal aliens. . . . I believe this will avoid . . . what happened a couple of weeks ago.”

Diocese of Orange Bishop Norman F. McFarland, who criticized the La Purisima arrest but did not call for an apology or a change in policy, said the new guidelines “are to be applauded. . . . I would say it’s a step in the right direction.”

But the Rev. Jaime Soto, chairman of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, said the guidelines were little more than a refinement “of what is essentially still a bad policy.”

“There is always going to be the risk of indiscretion by the INS officer, whether in a church, home or the way they handle an individual on the street,” said Soto, who would like to see the Border Patrol stop conducting neighborhood sweeps. “I appreciate the concern of the INS in wanting to avoid what happened at La Purisima. But they . . . will still have a negative impact because they will continue to conduct those kinds of harassing activities around the church.”

The Rev. John Martens, pastor at La Purisima, said that, if Border Patrol agents ask him for permission to enter his church to arrest suspected illegal aliens, as they are now required to do, he will refuse it.

“I would probably tell them that they should go get a search warrant,” Martens said.

In cases where the Border Patrol cannot get the cooperation of the church, Ezell said, the agents will simply walk away.

“We’re not going to . . . create a scene,” he said. “It would be duly noted, and our people would then leave and not create a disturbance. If there is a supervisor of that particular organization or order, our people would talk with them, in good faith. We’re trying to be sensitive to places of worship. . . . If there’s nothing to hide, let’s be open with each other and try to resolve this thing in a fair and reasonable way.”

Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this story.