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Response to Harold Ezell (1985)

In a recent editorial for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Western Regional Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Harold Ezell listed several arguments against the Sanctuary Movement. Laying aside his charged rhetoric and dubious references to biblical scholarship, one can see that the essential arguments are simple: leaders of the Sanctuary Movement are bypassing the legal system and using refugees for their own political ends, i.e., to oppose U. S. policy in Central America . Ezell then gives his interpretation of U.N and U.S. refugee law.

Anyone who has taken the time to talk to Sanctuary leaders, as I have, can attest to the fact that they have used all the means at their disposal to work within the law, providing humanitarian services and legal counsel to refugees as well as making available bond money to get them out of INS detention centers. It was only after exhausting these avenues and seeing that less than 3% of Salvadorans and 1% of Guatemalans were granted asylum that they decided to make a public stand on the side of these refugees and against the administration.

At first some took this step as a form of civil disobedience and were willing to go to jail to defend the lives of the refugees. But further study revealed that the laws were in fact on their side.

The Geneva Convention of 1951, in which our country played a major formative role, declared that people fleeing countries where life is endangered because of war, uncontrolled violence, lack of judicial process and other human rights are ipso facto refugees and should be given refugee status. The U.N. Protocol on Refugees of 1967 and the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 state that persons who leave their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution should not be deported back to those situations. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has specifically declared that Salvadorans and Guatemalans are refugees and the U.S. is the only signer of the Protocol that has refused to grant them that status. The U.S. Government has already deported tens of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, knowing full well that repressive regimes in those countries are responsible for uprooting two million people and killing over one hundred thousand non-combatant civilians during the last six years.

It is the INS then, directed by the highest authorities in the Justice and State Departments, that is violating U.S. and international law. The Sanctuary workers are struggling to uphold it.

Mr. Ezell claims that Sanctuary leaders are politically motivated because they oppose U.S. foreign policy. Certainly the Sanctuary Movement is more than a resettlement program for refugees. One ancillary benefit is to allow at least a few Guatemalans and Salvadorans to tell their stories to the people of the United States so we can learn what dangers they face if they are deported, as well as what caused them to leave their homes, their families, their land and their way of life in the first place. These refugees, the Sanctuary workers, a growing number of churches, synagogues, universities and cities, as well as individuals who have visited their homelands, simply want to respond to the cry of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero just before he was assassinated in 1980: “Stop the repression!”

The people and groups who feel that cry must be heard and heeded are not satisfied with the fact that our government's response has been the shipment of more that $2 billion of our tax dollars to the very forces that were responsible for the repression in the first place.

Ezell claims that the deportation of Salvadorans is closely monitored by the State Department and that the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration (ICM) has not reported a single case of a deportee who was killed or disappeared. Yet a letter from the Chief of Mission of the ICM in Washington, dated October 20, 1985, states that while they operate a reception and counseling center in El Salvador, they have made no study of the overall results of the deportations there and they have no program at all in Guatemala.

Obviously we have a long way to go to faithfully carry out the laws and moral commitments of our country. The Moakley-DeConcini Bill now in Congress would grant ‘Extended Voluntary Departure' status to Salvadorans now in the U.S., but does not provide for either new arrivals or Guatemalans; its chances for passage are rather slim and it does not stop the violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. Various organizations are attempting to stop the deportations through suits against the government, but ultimately, this being a democracy, it is up to the people to make our elected officials and the INS uphold the law. The Sanctuary Movement has set us an example.


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