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Casa Romero Provides Shelter to Thousands Fleeing Central America

March 17, 1986 GMT

SAN BENITO, Texas (AP) _ They continue to arrive daily.

They come alone, in pairs, or in groups with stories of their trek and sometimes of the smugglers who cheat them.

Some were scratched by thorny bushes during their journey. Some of the women arrive pregnant, ready to deliver. Most arrive hungry and scared.

Mostly from El Salvador and Nicaragua, they are the dispossessed of the strife in Central America, orphans from the storm seeking peace and a haven in the United States, their supporters say.

Those supporters, who help them settle here, often illegally, make up an army of well-meaning people paying allegiance to an unofficial movement they call sanctuary.

In Tucson, Ariz., the federal trial of 11 sanctuary workers accused of conspiring to smuggle aliens into the country is nearing its conclusion. A hearing to discuss jury instructions is set for Tuesday.

Defense attorneys chose to rest their case without calling a witness because they said they do not believe prosecutors have proved their case.

″Why attend the football game when the score is 27-0 in the last quarter?″ attorney Michael Piccarreta said Friday. ″In our opinion ... we won. There is no case. These people are not criminals.″

The trial has been continuing for 19 weeks.

A key point in the case was a victory by the defense, which had contended that testimony by an undercover witness was hearsay without testimony from the aliens allegedly smuggled into this country. They were never found by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In this south Texas city, in a quiet neighborhood not far from the Rio Grande sits Casa Oscar Romero, a Catholic Church-sponsored shelter that has offered temporary shelter to thousands fleeing Central America and trying to settle in the United States.

″You suffer with them and sometimes you feel you can’t do anything about it and it hurts. It breaks your heart,″ said Sister Ninfa Garza, a nun who serves as the shelter’s director.

The Diocese of Brownsville opened the shelter three years ago, and named it for the slain archbishop of El Salvador. In the last few weeks, the casa has offered shelter to an average 135 Central Americans a day, the sister said. Casa is Spanish for house.

″Local support has increased tremendously,″ said Hernan Gonzales, a diocese worker who supervises the home’s operation. ″We have seen more contributions in-kind, through food stuffs, clothing.″

The shelter has not operated without problems. In the past year, two former directors have wound up in federal court. And some neighbors don’t want the casa, which hits on parts of six city lots, in their neighborhood.

″I feel bad for those poor people,″ Mayor Cesar Gonzalez said of the refugees. ″I wish we could do something for them, but I have been getting a lot of complaints and I have to protect the citizenry of San Benito.″

Church officials say they don’t plan to move.

When the shelter opened, Gonzales said, it was thought that the instability in Central America that was driving refugees north would last three to four months. That was three years ago.

Those in the sanctuary movement say the Central Americans are fleeing war and persecution in the region, but the federal government maintains the aliens are being enticed to the United States by better economic conditions.

Casa Oscar Romero drew national attention a year ago when then-director Jack Elder went on trial in Corpus Christi on charges he transported three Salvadorans to a Harlingen bus station.

Elder was acquitted. He returned to cheers from church workers and shelter residents, and said his acquittal would inspire others.

But on Feb. 21, he and shelter volunteer Stacey Lynn Merkt were convicted in Houston of charges they took two Salvadorans to a McAllen bus station.

Elder refused to accept a sentence of two years’ probation on six convictions because the terms would have limited his involvement in the sanctuary movement.

U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela, who shocked the courtroom by saying he agreed with the sanctuary movement, sentenced Elder to spend five months in a San Antonio halfway house.

Ms. Merkt’s conviction was overturned by an appeals court. She is to be retried next month.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization officials keep an eye on Casa Romero, but Border Patrol Chief Silvestre Reyes said arresting those at the shelter is not a high priority.