They say government opposition deepens their commitment to help Central American refugees.

In March 1982, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, became the first “sanctuary” for Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries. Since then, some 180 churches have followed suit, much to the chagrin of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the U.S. Justice Department.

In January, culminating an elaborate 10-month undercover operation, federal authorities indicted 16 sanctuary workers for aiding illegal aliens. In addition, authorities arrested some 65 Central American aliens across the country. Most of the approximately 500 people being sheltered by American churches are from El Salvador.

Sanctuary leaders say the aggressive federal action will make their workers more determined and their movement more visible. They say the arrests in Texas last year of sanctuary workers Stacey Merkt and Jack Elder stirred the pot of their rebellion.

“The church is a peculiar institution,” says John Fife, pastor of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church and one of the 16 indicted. “It always responds to pressure with renewed vigor. Governments never understand that.”

The recent indictments and arrests caused attendance to soar at a recent national conference on sanctuary held in Tucson. Nearly 1,700 attended the meeting.

At the gathering, Merkt announced to a jubilant audience that a Texas jury had acquitted Elder, a Catholic lay worker who had been charged with transporting three undocumented Salvadorians 30 miles after they had crossed the border illegally. Jurors said that action was not a major violation.

Federal District Court Judge Hayden Head ruled in Elder’s trial that freedom of religion is a legitimate ...

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