By Lois Armstrong
March 25, 1985 12:00 PM

The blue-and-white mission church on the outskirts of Tucson is throbbing with activity: Telephones ring incessantly, workers scurry about and, squeezed onto cots in a utility room, Salvadoran men sit listlessly, exhausted from a long, arduous journey across Mexico. Only the forced cheerfulness of the church workers provides a hint that the “underground railroad,” which smuggled these men into the U.S. from their homeland, may soon be put out of business. The church’s pastor, the Rev. John M. Fife, and 11 other clergy and lay workers face 68 felony counts including conspiracy. On the basis of evidence gathered by undercover federal agents who infiltrated the South-side Presbyterian Church with concealed tape recorders, the defendants are accused of illegally transporting Guatemalans and Salvadorans into the U.S. and harboring them from the law. Sixty-six Central Americans were apprehended last January (and some are still held) as material witnesses. After the July trial the aliens will undergo hearings to determine their status; they may be deported.

Fife, 45, whose church is in a largely Hispanic community, accuses the U.S. government of discriminating against Guatemalan and Salvadoran aliens while affording political asylum to refugees from Communist countries. Central Americans are generally classified by the government as “economic migrants” ineligible for asylum. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that the illegal alien population of the U.S. increases by 500,000 yearly; most of those aliens are Latins though the number from El Salvador and Guatemala is unknown. Fife maintains that the Central Americans the sanctuary movement has smuggled into the U.S. and sheltered in a nationwide network of 200 churches are refugees fleeing persecution and war. “We have a duty to protect them,” he says. “At first we all assumed we were breaking the law, but we agreed that allegiance to God’s law takes precedence over civil authority.” In a related Houston case last month, two other sanctuary workers who claimed that their actions were guided by religious beliefs were convicted after a court rejected their contention that the aliens were legally entitled to asylum.

Fife’s first encounter with Central American migrants came in 1980 when he talked with 12 survivors of a group of 24 Salvadorans led into the Arizona desert by Mexican smugglers who apparently lost their way. Subsequently, Fife radically changed his preconceptions about the nature of the exodus. “I had thought they were coming across the border for the same reason as Mexicans—to get jobs in the land of opportunity,” he admits. “Then I began talking to Salvadorans who had seen pregnant women lashed to trees, their stomachs slashed with bayonets and fetuses torn out because they were considered ‘guerrilla factories.’ My meeting with those desert survivors forced me to study what was happening in Central America.” Fife pored over international refugee laws, visited the Central American countries and concluded the need was genuine and urgent.

In early 1981 Fife and a few followers began raising money to bail out illegal immigrants, sheltering them and helping them to apply for political asylum and housing. But that spring the INS began enforcing alien and asylum laws with new vigor. The aliens were detained and required to post bonds, often of $3,000 or more, to ensure their return for status hearings, a procedure generally waived by pre-Reagan administrations. “We wanted to stop the flow of illegal aliens and regain control of our borders,” explains INS spokesman Duke Austin. Fife decided to harbor the aliens illegally in his Southside Church. “We had to do it,” Fife says. “Taking them in to apply for asylum was futile. The applications were being denied, and they were being deported.”

The government lawyers took note, indirectly warning Fife and his associates that they were running the risk of arrest. Southside’s parishioners were undeterred. They decided to publicize the movement, hoping to win over the U.S. press and public. In all, the sanctuary network has aided 2,000 to 3,000 aliens judged to be fleeing persecution. The migrants are passed through a pipeline of churches until they find work. Aliens judged to be simply economic refugees are given food and clothing and sent on their way.

The INS finally took action against Fife and his associates last May, sending undercover agents to infiltrate the church. Posing as volunteers, they compiled 100 tapes of the group’s activities, leading to the indictments. Fife became suspicious immediately of Jesus Cruz, who showed up bearing gifts of apples and oranges for the refugees, then began asking probing questions. “We figured something was wrong,” says Fife. “But what were we going to do? Check everybody out like the FBI? We decided to accept people at face value and get on with our business.”

INS spokesman Austin makes no apology for his agency’s policy. “Just because there’s strife in your country doesn’t mean the U.S. is a safe haven.” Under the law, Austin explains, political asylum may be granted only to specific groups of people, such as Soviet Jews or Polish Solidarity activists, who have legitimate fear of persecution in their native lands. Fife claims the Salvadorans and Guatemalans fit this definition exactly and are being wrongly denied asylum. He alleges that the sanctuary movement has documented the deaths of more than 100 Salvadorans killed in 1981 after being sent home by the U.S. The INS, which reports that 3,920 Salvadorans were deported last year, says there is no evidence that any deportee has been harmed on return.

In 1984, 13,045 Salvadorans were refused asylum in the U.S.; only 503 were accepted. Nonetheless, Salvadorans are the fourth largest national group to be granted asylum in America. (Iranians, Poles and Nicaraguans head the list.) Though the Salvadorans have a high denial rate, they can appeal against deportation, and thousands of such cases may drag on for years.

Fife—who lives with wife Marianne and their sons, John Jr., 20, and David, 16, next to the church—believes that legal and moral right lie on his side. He has pleaded not guilty, and he vows, “The pipeline will not be choked off; we will not be intimidated. This ain’t a bunch of bearded kooks but a group of Middle Americans who won’t turn any refugees from our door. We shall protect these people as we always have—by the moral presence of the church.”