A committee of local church and civic activists has launched an effort to make the District a sanctuary for illegal refugees who have immigrated here from Central American countries and Haiti.
The D.C. Metropolitan Sanctuary Committee, formed recently by priests, ministers and Hispanic community activists, said it intends to persuade the City Council to draft and pass legislation providing certain protections for an estimated 75,000 to 80,000 illegal immigrants who are believed to be living in the city.
The Reagan administration considers it a crime to offer sanctuary to Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Haitian refugees because federal officials believe that they flee their countries for economic gain, not political asylum.
In recent months, however, several Washington churches have disagreed and have helped hundreds of undocumented aliens to avoid authorities and resettle their families.
Church activists involved in the "sanctuary movement" run a modern day "underground railroad" for refugees, transporting them from their countries to safety in the Washington area. They cite biblical commands as the basis for helping refugees. The local committee was formed to pressure District Mayor Marion Barry and City Council members to support their cause.
"The legislation would simply state that Washington is a sanctuary city where people who flee political repression have the right to a hearing, a right to apply for political asylum, a right to apply for social services without harassment from federal authorities," said the Rev. Philip Wheaton, coordinator of the committee.
About 17,000 legal residents of the city are Hispanic, with the city's overall population being 627,000, city officials said. But legal immigrants make up less that 5 percent of the Central American population here.
Annette Samuels, Barry's press secretary, said that Barry has not endorsed the sanctuary committee's efforts but that he recently assured it in a written statement that the city government provides health and social services to any city resident, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. A lease agreement or a telephone bill is all that is needed for a resident to to confirm his or her residency and apply for services, she said.
In addition, District police are forbidden to demand so-called "green cards," which document legal residency for non-English-speaking residents, without "strong evidence" of illegal status.
"It is my firm conviction that basic human services be ensured to all D.C. residents," Barry wrote to the committee. "It is my understanding that this is a cornerstone of the sanctuary movement."
Sanctuary movement spokesmen have charged that because the District depends heavily on federal financial assistance, the mayor is reluctant to support any disobedience of federal law or to ignore foreign policy. But Samuels said such concern has not prevented the mayor from opposing federal authorities or members of Congress on other issues in the past.
"There are times when the mayor and the city disagree with the federal government and we believe we should sit down and discuss those disagreements," she said. "We sit down and discuss the best ways to work those disagreements out.
"We have a growing [refugee] population. They certainly have special needs and we try to address them."
Wheaton, an Episcopal priest, said he is optimistic about the possibility of making the District a haven for refugees because there is "strong" support among city residents for expanding the rights of illegal immigrants.