Last year a movie called El Norte made the rounds of the art theatres. It wasn’t the sort of film destined for wide distribution—nothing much to engage an audience eager for yet another adolescent sex farce—and despite the admiration of many critics it soon dissolved into a terminal fade. The movie dealt with two Guatemalans, a brother and sister, who entered the United States illegally and headed for Los Angeles. At home, there wasn’t much hope for economic advancement. There wasn’t much hope for survival, as a matter of fact, because the family was on the outs with a repressive government.
El Norte was a nice try—one of those high-minded efforts that goes a long way on good intentions. As drama, though, the movie could have been stronger. It strayed too far toward polemic in the final segments, and the story of the brother and sister, an extremely touching one, lost credibility. But if art was undercut by politics in this instance, one can appreciate the moviemakers’ sense of urgency.
There seems no question that the fictional odyssey depicted in El Norte was far more than whimsy. Central Americans are, indeed, fleeing their countries, and United States policy is hardly an incidental factor. Not surprisingly, however, leaders in Washington have little use for such bothersome examples of political cause and effect. It remains the administration’s peculiar view that, with few exceptions, Latin refugees are not trying to escape tyranny at all but simply heading north for higher wages and color TV.
Routinely, refugees from Salvador and Guatemala apply for political asylum. Routinely, they are denied. Petitions are granted only to those few who somehow demonstrate that, if returned, they would face intimidation—a claim that rarely impresses United States examining officers. To be sure, we are uncommonly diligent in considering the question of whether these people will be imprisoned, slain or tortured should they go home. One might wish that we had exercised as much prudence in selecting Latin governments for preferential treatment over the last half century. With truly beatific patience, after all, we have abided an inordinate number of dopes and despots, paid them millions, dispatched our military to provide support and argued their case before the
court of public opinion. Dictators and generals earn our understanding. Only the people arouse our suspicions.
Failing to believe the stories of the applicants, then refusing to accept the notion that thousands are threatened by local assassins and elements of the Guardia Nacional, we send them back to wherever they came from. Economic refugees must submit to normal procedures and wait their turn at immigration. It’s just that simple. The United States cannot be in the position of bringing aboard every José and Maria obsessed by dreams of a middle-class existence.
The softhearted say this sort of approach is remarkable at a time when the administration, in league with assorted faith healers and radio preachers, is attempting to inspire a renaissance of good old-fashioned Christian values. While doing unto the least of these my brethren may be a nice idea for a presi-
dential prayer breakfast, critics say, the concept seems not so attractive over at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“Were the United States government today forcibly returning Jews to the Soviet Union or Poles to Poland, neither Congress nor the people would stand for it,” said William Sloane Coffin, senior minister of Riverside Church in Manhattan and a fellow who rarely takes his toast and scrambled eggs at the White House. Further, Coffin said, the failure of United States legislators to intercede on behalf of the illegals from Guatemala and Salvador was “activity blatantly un-American.”
Coffin and a number of other clergy have decided to involve themselves in activity that is blatantly to the contrary. Specifically, they are endorsing an effort known as the sanctuary movement—a church-sponsored campaign that leads one to believe Jerry Falwell and President Reagan may be peddling an altogether renegade view of what it means to love thy neighbor.
Approximately 200 congregations support the sanctuary campaign at this
point—churches wherein the Ladies’ Aid almost certainly serves coffee after worship and the Men’s Club runs an annual roast beef dinner and the Youth Fellowship goes ice skating on Sunday afternoons and wherein, as well, illegal aliens from Central America can find food, counsel and often a place to sleep. In other words, ordinary church folks— the very same who complain about the cost of choir robes and read Dentyne wrappers during sermons—are announcing they don’t much like the way this government is treating unfortunates from south of the border. When we last heard, the meek were supposed to be inheriting the earth, and, so far as the sanctuary people are concerned, the United States is not an exempted area.
What the church folks are doingharboring undocumented aliens—is viewed as quite illegal by authorities, and Washington can by no means countenance such an outrageous breach of the statutes. If this nation is to maintain the integrity of its borders and the credibility of its foreign policies, appropriate action would be necessary. The bleeding hearts have gone quite far enough.
The federal government has secured indictments against 16 sanctuary workers, who, if convicted, could pay up to $5,000 and spend five years in jail. The volunteers protest and say they have done nothing wrong. From their point of view, the Central Americans being assisted are not illegal aliens but persons convinced their lives were at risk—political refugees according to any definition not perverted by ambition and expediency. Indictments or not, workers said, the sanctuary movement would endure. Pledged one volunteer: “In terms of that issue of faith, we’re not budging.”
Meanwhile, the state department is circulating a white paper claiming that the Soviet Union, with help from Cuba, is striving to annex Central America for purposes of military advantage. Good sense demands vigilance, the familiar message, and vigilance demands support for friendly Latin regimes—friendly to us, if not their own citizenry. So it seems that sanctuary workers and their allies will be busy indeed at least until 1988. With the Reagan administration committed to making Central America safe for democracy, church people best keep their doors open and their attorneys on full alert.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
‘Jerry Falwell and President Reagan may have a renegade view of what love thy neighbor means'
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