One by one, the family members left El Salvador to smuggle themselves into the United States, each working and saving money after they arrived to help bring the next ones up.
They told of Salvadoran National Guard soldiers coming to their home in San Salvador, torture and murder of a neighbor's son by police, slaughter of classmates in school yards, and constant fear. "We would be afraid, we would be on the buses; just because you're young, they would take you off," said the 15-year-old daughter.
The six family members are among an estimated 100,000 or more Salvadorans in the United States illegally. Caught living in the Washington area by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), they are among 22,314 Salvadorans now awaiting decisions on applications for asylum in this country.
They also have become part of an extraordinary grass-roots religious network that is trying to help them. Called the National Sanctuary Movement, the network is using illegal as well as legal means to protect the people it considers refugees from apprehension and deportation by immigration officials.
The illegal activities include institution of an underground railroad that smuggles Salvadorans from city to city across the country and the sheltering of them in more than a dozen churches that over the last 10 months have declared themselves "sanctuaries" for Salvadorans not yet caught by immigration officials.
Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee and Racine, Wis., have declared themselves sanctuaries and sheltered the Central Americans, according to the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, the ecumenical organization that is coordinating the movement.
Committees to organize churches that are considering becoming sanctuaries have been formed in nine other cities. About 200 churches help the movement with food, clothing, and bail money, according to the task force.
The movement's goal is to stop the deportations of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who have entered the United States illegally and to have political asylum granted them across the board. Its ultimate goal is to stop U.S. government aid to El Salvador.
Earlier this month, the San Salvadoran family of six sat talking in Central American Refugee Center offices in Washington, their names kept secret to protect relatives back in El Salvador, they said. They sat beneath posters calling for Salvadoran rights.
The center, located at 1801 Columbia Road NW, is known in the Hispanic community as Carecen, the Spanish word for "they are needy."
Largely church-funded, its staff of five includes three lawyers (one of them a Salvadoran who escaped through the back door of his home in San Salvador when a masked civilian death squad came for him) who provide immigration counseling to more than 1,000 Salvadorans.
Among other groups using legal means, the Tucson Ecumenical Council in Arizona, a Protestant and Roman Catholic group of churches, has given legal aid and raised and given out $750,000 for bail for about 1,500 Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested by the INS.
Spokesmen for the movement charge that the Salvadorans here qualify for asylum because of torture and murder in their country, and that the U.S. government is responsible.
For the churches, it's "a serious moral dilemma," said the Rev. John Fife, pastor of the Southside United Presbyterian Church in Tucson, which last March was one of the first churches to declare itself a sanctuary. It has since illegally housed about 350 Salvadorans from a few hours to a few weeks.
"Our government is supporting with arms, training, and economic support the people creating the murder and torture that's creating the refugee problem in the first place," Fife said.
The movement has been endorsed by national organizations of the United Presbyterian, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, and Mennonite denominations, according to the task force. Milwaukee's Roman Catholic Bishop Rembert Weakland and Episcopal Bishop Charles T. Gaskell, meanwhile, have promised support to any of their churches that become santuaries.
"These people are fleeing for their lives," said Bishop Gaskell.
The movement began two years ago in Tucson when church groups tried to help Salvadorans and Guatemalans gathering there. The city is only about 70 miles from the Mexican border.
The underground railroad was started by retired rancher Jim Corbett, a Quaker living in Tucson, after he tried to locate a Salvadoran he heard feared death if deported back to his country.
"These were people being picked up, deported, being sent back to a strong possibility of torture and murder," Corbett said.
The INS reports a backlog of 22,314 applications for asylum over the last three years from Salvadorans, who generally apply for it after they have been caught by immigration agents. It has no tally on Guatemalans.
In fiscal year 1982, only 74 applications for asylum were approved, while 1,067 were denied. But the cases can take years. In fiscal 1982, the agency caught 14,078 Salvadorans here illegally; 5,131 were either deported or agreed to leave voluntarily.
"The right to claim asylum was never meant to be a back door to immigration to the United States," said Duke Austin, spokesman for the INS. "The refugee act doesn't say if there's civil strife in your country, you can come here. You must establish well-founded fear of persecution."
Illegal immigrants haven't been screened, he said. "You have no control over what you're receiving."