INS Says Its Agents Will Get Permission to Enter Churches

Times Staff Writer

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

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

The incident provoked a storm of outrage from church and Latino community leaders, who said that immigration agents had violated the sanctity of the church and at least some of 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 he said the agent had followed the two men in “hot pursuit” and had done nothing improper.


Although it was the first such incident in Ezell’s 6 1/2 years as regional commissioner, he said that he would re-examine the immigration service’s policy regarding the entering of 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 their supervisor, unless they are chasing suspected felons or if there is a serious threat of harm to the agent or to the public. A suspected illegal alien running from a Border Patrol agent will not be considered a felon. The supervisor, in turn, will contact a person in charge at the church and request cooperation.

- In cases where there is no hot pursuit, immigration authorities must obtain permission from the district director or chief patrol agent in charge. 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.

Ezell said the new guidelines maintain the integrity of a longstanding policy. “We don’t go into churches, schools and hospitals looking for illegal aliens. . . . The one area I believe this will avoid is what happened a couple of weeks ago.”


Bishop Norman F. McFarland of of Orange, who was critical of 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 Father Jaime Soto, chairman of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, said the guidelines are 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 (on the community) because they will continue to conduct those kinds of harassing activities around the church.”

Father 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, he will refuse it.

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

Ezell said that in such cases--where the Border Patrol cannot get the cooperation of the church--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. 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.”