"Deus es amor. Bendite esta casa," is scrawled in chalk on the door of this low-slung building that used to be a neighborhood bar. These days it provides temporary shelter for people who have entered the United States without benefit of visas, many of them crossing the Rio Grande River just seven miles to the south.
Next month, Jack Elder, director of the refuge called Casa Romero, will go on trial on charges of driving three undocumented aliens from the house to a nearby bus stop.
His trial will be the second involving a Casa Romero worker. Stacey Merkt was found guilty in May of transporting undocumented aliens after the U.S. Border Patrol found her riding in a car bringing two undocumented Salvadorans and a child to San Antonio. An all-Hispanic jury deliberated four days before returning the verdict. Merkt, who was given a three-month suspended sentence and put on probation for two years, is appealing.
In Tucson, charges of transporting illegal aliens were brought against Southside worker Philip Conger in May, but they were dismissed last month after a federal judge ruled the U.S. Border Patrol had not had sufficient cause to stop and search his car.
Immigration officials say they apprehended Conger, Merkt and Elder as a result of normal enforcement operations. But Elder, who says he "never felt like a criminal," believes his prosecution is part of an effort to dampen the sanctuary movement. Three cars used by Casa Romero workers have been confiscated by the border patrol after being used to transport illegal aliens.
Merkt's trial was a major event in this part of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, where illegal immigration is a topic that causes feelings to run high. Authorities estimate nearly half the Salvadorans illegally entering the country pass through this area.
Angered by testimony at the trial, the INS district director in San Antonio, Richard M. Casillas, wrote an open letter to a local newspaper saying, "I wish those old celibate Catholic preachers, among others, would get their act together. . . . I burn, seethe and boil that the religion of my choice has placed its imprimatur on a crusade to destroy my country, advocating a breakdown of our laws -- that is the only meaning of defiance."
Casa Romero is named for Catholic Bishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by right-wing assassins as he said mass in San Salvador in 1980. Inside the building there is a small framed picture of another bishop: John J. Fitzpatrick, head of the Catholic archdiocese of Brownsville, Tex., which runs the refuge.
"The halfway house was opened because people were poor," says Fitzpatrick. "They had no money, they hadn't eaten in days, they had wet clothes because they had just swum the river," he says. "Obviously they were refugees, the stories they told were heart rending."
Despite his identification with the sanctuary movement, Fitzpatrick says he does not advocate civil disobedience.
"What I've advocated is Christian: taking care of, feeding, helping them make telephone calls to get in touch with their families. Our operation has not looked to transporting people, though a lot of our people do. A lot of our sisters and priests have helped Salvadorans get out of the Rio Grande Valley. . . . I admire them, I'll be in the courtroom and I'll visit them in jail to show my soliarity, but I have not advocated that.
"I think the laws are un-American . . . putting people on planes and sending them back to possible death; even if I were agnostic I think I would have the same philosophy about it . . . we can come up with something better than that.
"Forty to fifty thousand people have been killed [in El Salvador]. That's one percent of the population. If one percent of the U.S. population were killed we'd say something was wrong here."
Elder, 41, is a volunteer church worker whose salary is $375 a month. He lives with his wife and four sons in a trailer next to Casa Romero. While Elder says "evasion services" are "part of our work," he says Casa Romero is mainly "a hospitality center, a temporary refugee shelter. We just see the tip of the iceberg of Salvadoran refugees coming through the valley. We help about 150 people each month."