Desert Samaritans Stand by Duty

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

When Tim Holt spotted Maria Rabanales of El Salvador lying still in the Arizona desert this summer, he believed he had a God-given duty to save her.

He forced water through the woman's swollen jaws and poured ice down her shirt. Border Patrol agents later took Rabanales to a hospital, where she was revived.

Holt was praised by Humane Borders, sponsored by First Christian Church of Tucson, where he is a volunteer. But his actions that June day might soon be considered a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison or property forfeiture, if a Republican-sponsored bill that passed the House along partisan lines on Friday becomes law.

The bill -- endorsed by the Bush administration though it would have preferred a more comprehensive bill with a guest-worker program -- would make it a crime to assist undocumented immigrants who enter or attempt to enter the United States illegally. It has sent a chill through church organizations that help migrants in the belief that they are carrying out the will of God.

"The overriding biblical mandate is to care for the stranger or the alien because that stranger or alien might very well be God," said Joan M. Maruskin, the Washington representative for the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program.

"I think it is most unfortunate that an administration that has developed a faith-based office would be in support of a piece of legislation that is diametrically opposed to the biblical teaching that mandates the care of the alien."

Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, an opponent of mass immigration, said churches are interpreting the bill too literally. She said that other than stiffer penalties, the wording is not much different from current law.

"People aren't going to be prosecuted for providing life-giving care," Jenks said. "It's what they do after providing that care. If they take them back to their church and harbor them, then that's a problem. It would really have to be an outrageous act to be prosecuted."

Some conservative evangelical groups that generally support Republican policies declined to comment on whether the legislation was in conflict with their mission. Richard Cizik, a spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals, said that the group does not usually take a stand on immigration issues and that he did not feel comfortable commenting.

World Relief, an arm of the evangelical association, posted on its Web site an interfaith statement made at an October hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The statement called for the type of comprehensive immigration change that is missing from the bill, including a temporary worker program for migrants; the "creation of legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S."; and opportunities "for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows" with an option "to . . . eventually become United States citizens."

In Arizona, where immigrants cross the desert each year by the thousands and die in the hundreds, groups such as Humane Borders and No More Deaths try to save some.

About the penalties for helping that the House passed, Stuart Taylor, co-pastor of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church in Tucson, a founding member of No More Deaths, said, "We think such legislation would be a very dangerous precedent, a government trying to make it illegal to do the right thing."

Two volunteers at No More Deaths, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, were arrested by Border Patrol agents near Arivaca, Ariz., while taking three illegal immigrants to a distress center.

"People of faith and conscience will continue . . . because that is the nature of our faith and our moral duty," Taylor said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company