The congregation of Luther Place Memorial Church has voted to offer sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees facing deportation, an action the church described as civil disobedience that is against the current U.S. immigration policy that prevents most Salvadorans from gaining political asylum here.
"Enough is enough," said Luther Place's pastor, the Rev. John F. Steinbruck.
"If our nation is going to be about policies that cause refugees, then the least the churches can do is provide sanctuary for these refugees," added Steinbruck, a critic of U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government.
Luther Place is currently the only church in the Washington area and one of at least 15 churches across the country to announce it will offer sanctuary to refugees from El Salvador and other Central American nations as part of broadening efforts by church groups to express concern over U.S. military aid to El Salvador and the plight of the Salvadoran refugees.
Russ Manchester, acting director of the Washington district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he was unaware of the Luther Place announcement, but added that "under normal circumstances," the INS would not enter a church to take an illegal immigrant into custody. Manchester said the INS would study the situation to determine what course of action, if any, the agency would take.
Yesterday, Roman Catholic Archbishop James A. Hickey of Washington and Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio celebrated a mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral, marking the third anniversary of the death of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken critic of the Salvadoran government, who was gunned down at his church in San Salvador.
Hickey, who two weeks ago sharply criticized U.S. military aid to El Salvador at a congressional hearing and asked for political asylum for the Salvadoran refugees, urged Catholics again yesterday to "join in prayer for the noble people of El Salvador and all the nations of Central America so that they may experience justice and peace."
Meanwhile, Steinbruck, of Luther Place, said that his congregation's action, which came in a vote on March 16, is supported by at least seven other local clerics, whose congregations are also considering offering sanctuary to refugees.
One of the churches is St. Stephen & The Incarnation at 16th and Newton streets NW. Noreen Buckley, editor of the church newsletter, said yesterday congregation leaders there will discuss the issue of sanctuary at a meeting planned for April 10.
An estimated 50,000 Salvadorans live in the Washington area, which has one of the largest Salvadoran communities in the nation.
Most are here illegally, according to Michael Maggio, the Washington lawyer who has represented a number of the refugees in their efforts to stay in this country.
Steinbruck said his congregation had already made arrangements for three Salvadoran men, a carpenter, a welder and a mathematics teacher, and one Salvadoran woman and her baby to stay at the church.
He said these and any other refugees from other countries who seek asylum would be housed in the church sanctuary. Luther Place has sheltered refugees from a number of countries in the past.
Most Salvadoran refugees fleeing the civil strife in that country enter this country illegally because they are unable to obtain exit visas. The Catholic Church and other groups working on the refugees' behalf have asked that the United States either grant the Salvadorans political asylum or issue a "stay of deportation," a temporary measure that would permit them to stay in this country until the violence in their homeland subsides.
Hickey said yesterday that while he did not favor the Catholic churches granting sanctuary, he would continue to lobby Congress, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to grant the refugees legal status.
"While my position is to follow more traditional methods . . . I do not want this view to be interpreted as questioning the motivation of those who use other methods to protest these unjust policies," Hickey said.