Takoma Park, among the first cities in the nation to define itself as a nuclear-free zone, has declared that it is now a "sanctuary" for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees and has barred city officials from assisting Immigration and Naturalization Service actions against such refugees living in the city.
With the passage of the sanctuary ordinance Monday night by its City Council, Takoma Park joins five other U.S. cities in officially defending the rights of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in their communities, a spokesman for the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America said yesterday.
However, Robin Semer, spokesman for the task force, an information clearinghouse for the sanctuary movement, said Takoma Park is one of the first to adopt legislation barring city officials from assisting immigration agents.
The measures were proposed last month by the Takoma Park Sanctuary Coalition, which is protesting federal decisions that it contends have denied political asylum to all but about 3 percent of the applicants from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Refugees from those countries "face the grave risk of prosecution and war-related atrocities in the countries they have fled," the council stated. "Numerous cases of murders and disappearances of deportees have been documented."
"Basically we're making a statement about a situation that . . . is putting people in jeopardy," said City Administrator James S. Wilson Jr. "This is a temporary measure to provide them sanctuary until some resolution is made of whatever it is that puts them in jeopardy back home."
Wilson acknowledged that Takoma Park's declaration as a sanctuary city is largely symbolic, and would not prevent INS agents from entering the city and removing refugees, but he said that it would serve as a deterrent to such action.
He said that while the council considered granting sanctuary to refugees from other Central American countries, it decided to focus on El Salvador and Guatemala because those nations are "in the midst of crises of civil war and gross human rights violations."
The council said that about 20,000 people from El Salvador and Guatemala have sought refuge in Takoma Park and in neighboring communities in the last few years. City officials said they did not know how many Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees were currently living in Takoma Park.
Duke Austin, an INS spokesman, said that while the Takoma Park measures do not violate any federal laws, "we consider them unfortunate. All of the illegal aliens that enter the U.S. aren't necessarily individuals fleeing economic disaster or war-torn countries. Some are here for less than honorable purposes.
"When you have a city that says it's not going to cooperate by identifying these illegal aliens, we don't think that's very responsible." Austin added, however, that the Takoma Park measure "will not inhibit us from enforcing the immigration law."
The ordinance states that no city official shall "assist or cooperate with the INS in the investigation or arrest of any persons" from the two Central American countries "for civil or criminal violation of the immigration and nationality laws of the U.S."
It also bars city officials from inquiring about the citizenship or residency status of any city resident from the two countries and from releasing such information to the INS.
Other cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries for refugees are Berkeley, Calif.; Cambridge, Mass.; Ithaca, N.Y., and St. Paul and Duluth, Minn.