A federal appeals court today upheld the conviction of eight Arizona sanctuary movement workers for helping Central Americans enter the country illegally.
The 1986 trial was the first major federal prosecution of sanctuary workers, members of a church-based movement to give refuge to immigrants from strife-torn Central American countries.
In a 3-0 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the eight, including five members of the clergy, had no right to offer as a defense their religious beliefs or their belief that the aliens are entitled to political asylum.
“A rule which would allow (the defendants) essentially to put Reagan Administration foreign policy on trial would be foolish,” said Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall.
She said government prosecutors cannot be required to meet the “incredibly difficult burden” of delving into the facts of each alien’s case to prove that the sanctuary workers did not believe that the alien was a legitimate political refugee.
Hall said the activists’ claims that enforcement of the immigration laws infringed on their religious beliefs were outweighed by “the government’s overriding concern in policing its borders.” She also rejected claims of selective prosecution and of illegal surveillance by informants who secretly tape-recorded church services.
The U.S. government offers asylum only to those who can prove political persecution. Most applicants from El Salvador and Guatemala are turned down.
The eight were convicted in Tucson on charges including conspiracy and harboring and transporting illegal aliens. All were placed on probation.
Several other defendants were acquitted, pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or had charges dismissed.