Churches and legal aid groups working with Central American immigrants have been the targets of break-ins in which intruders reviewed sensitive files in at least 11 cities during the last 15 months, according to sanctuary workers and some officials who say they suspect the incidents were politically motivated.
The most recent of the estimated two dozen break-ins occurred in Los Angeles on Dec. 30, when intruders sawed through a wall of the Pico Rivera United Methodist Church, pulling out sanctuary-related files, church membership lists and tax records, according to the Rev. Fernando Santillana, pastor. As in most of the previous break-ins, nothing was stolen.
"I just thought it was one of those isolated cases at first," Santillana said. "Then I found that quite a few churches involved in the sanctuary movement had been broken into. It's too many to be a coincidence. It seems to me either the INS Immigration and Naturalization Service or the FBI may be harassing churches in the sanctuary movement or else maybe some right-wing groups are doing it."
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), who heads the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, said in an interview this week that he has received similar complaints from more than a dozen sanctuary groups around the country.
"We're very interested in these break-ins," he said. "We have had people call us who say they suspect the FBI or the INS is behind this. We don't think so. We think the FBI and the federal intelligence agencies no longer engage in this type of operation."
Congressional investigations during the mid-1970s revealed that several federal agencies, including the FBI, had been involved in vast illegal counterintelligence operations designed to disrupt dissident groups. The investigations led to stricter regulations against such operations by federal agencies.
Edwards said that he is asking the FBI this week to investigate the break-ins to determine if foreign agents, possibly from Guatemala or El Salvador, may be involved. The sanctuary movement has offered refuge to immigrants from both countries, saying that their governments have histories of killing people they suspect of opposing them.
Lane Bonner, an FBI spokesman in Washington, said that Edwards' request would be considered.
Both Bonner and Greg Leo, spokesman for the INS in Washington, dismissed allegations that federal agents were involved in the break-ins as "absurd."
Workers in the sanctuary movement who have been victimized by the odd break-ins say that they have no evidence to implicate anyone. But they say that they are disturbed by similarities in the crimes.
"Nothing of monetary value is taken," said Adelita Medina, coordinator of the Movement Support Network at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
"Usually file cabinets are broken into, and a lot of files that deal with refugees or other solidarity work are gone through, as well as church membership lists. We believe that this is harassment either to gather information or to intimidate people or both."
Medina and a dozen other activists said in interviews that their suspicions have been heightened by the recent federal investigation into the sanctuary movement, which led to the current trial of 11 religious and lay workers in Tucson, Ariz., on charges of conspiracy involving illegal alien smuggling.
The bulk of the evidence presented by the federal government during the trial has come from informants who in some cases secretly tape recorded church meetings. Edwards has announced plans to hold a hearing after the trial ends on those practices, which he says may violate the First Amendment.
The break-ins began in late 1984 and have occurred in at least 11 cities: Berkeley, Calif.; Boston; Cambridge, Mass.; Detroit; Guadalupe, Ariz.; Los Angeles; Louisville; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix and Seattle. There are about 300 churches nationwide that have declared themselves sanctuaries for refugees from Central America.