Operation Sojourner: Spies in the Pews

“PIlar Martinez, a Catholic lay worker in El Salvador, accompanied Archbishop Oscar Romero to the chapel where he was murdered in 1980. She later worked with Jean Donovan, one of the four American churchwomen who were killed there later that year. Pilar herself was seized by the military and tortured for three months, during which time she was handcuffed to her four-year-old daughter Mila. Finally, both were thrown atop a heap of bodies on the back of a truck and driven to a burial site. They threw themselves off the truck, escaped and began a trip north. In early 1983, they found sanctuary at the University Baptist Church in Seattle, Wash. Mila, still suffering the psychological effects of torture, has improved with psychiatric care. Last summer, Pilar’s sister-in-;aw Elba, 26, and her two small children, 10 and 12, escaped from El Salvador after Elba’s husband was shot by a death squad. Secretly crossing the Arizona border, they found refuge at the Southside Presbytrian Church, a sanctuary in Tucson. The children were hidden in a trailer on the ride to Los Angeles, the next leg of the trip. Jesus Cruz, an engaging older Mexican-American who helped out around the Tucson sanctuary, kept them company. Eventually, the family was reunited in Seattle and settled anonymously in a private apartment. 

“In late December, Cruz called the University Baptist Church and asked for the childrens’ address so he could send them a Christmas present. The receptionist said she didn’t know the address but gave him the phone number. Cruz called the apartment and the children answered. They told him where they lived. On Monday, Jan. 14 at 8 a.m., the present arrived in the form of three agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They threw the door open and took the two women and the children to jail.” (LA Weekly, Feb. 7, 1985)

(Image by Andrew Schultz)

In the early 1980’s, the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were beset with civil wars, bloody coups, gangs, death squads and ruthless dictators. The result was a steady stream of escapees like Pilar Martinez and her family. They made their way through Mexico to the U.S. border where they hoped to be granted asylum.

But the bloody dictators who ruled those Central American countries were considered allies by the Reagan Administration because they were fighting leftist insurgents, or, in the case of Nicaragua, they had just toppled a socialist government. So the government was loath to concede the nature of the regimes they were supporting. Rather than acknowledge the violence and human rights violations the migrants faced, they were pronounced economic refugees and as such were not qualified to be granted asylum. All but about 3 percent of the asylum applications of Salvadorans and Guatemalans were denied.

This situation gave rise to the Sanctuary Movement. It started at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, the one where PIlar’s sister-in-law Elba originally found refuge. During the 80’s the movement grew rapidly, eventually including some 500+ congregations that included Catholics, Jews and multiple denominations of Protestants. The Sanctuary Movement did not operate in secret, they were openly challenging the way U.S. immigration and refugee policies were being implemented and were working to change those policies.

immigration posters

Operation Sojourner was a joint project of the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). It was the brainchild of INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson who thought it was a way to crush the Sanctuary Movement. And Jesus Cruz was just the guy he needed.

Cruz and a man he described as his nephew, Saloman Graham, according to the Miami Herald (Nov. 7, 1985), “became informants in 1980 after being implicated in an alien-smuggling ring run by two Bonita Springs, Fla., contractors. According to depositions, Cruz and Graham agreed to work for the government in exchange for immunity from prosecution.”

The two befriended sanctuary workers and Central Americans. The Herald reported that “The informants ate in their homes. They attended sanctuary strategy sessions. Cruz even transported refugees from border safe houses to churches along the underground railroad.”

The Rev. John Fike, pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church and one of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement, told the Herald, “Jesus showed up at my church one afternoon. Jesus presented himself as this nice little man eager to be helpful to refugees. I took him at face value.”

U.S.-Mexico border
U.S.-Mexico border, Campo, Calif. (Image by Greg Bulla)

What he was doing was recording church meetings and religious services and copying license plate numbers from cars in the churches’  parking lots. He also joined a Bible Study group of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees at the Arizona Lutheran Church in Phoenix, another sanctuary church. 

According to an AP story on Oct. 24, 1985, ten congressmen sent a letter to Nelson urging him not to prosecute Sanctuary Movement personnel. Nelson responded, “There will not be any special targeting of any particular individuals or groups for prosecution. Consistent with past and existing policy, INS ordinarily does not enter churches.‘’ In other words, he flat out lied.

Based on the evidence Cruz and other informants gathered, 16 individuals were indicted on charges relating to transporting and harboring illegal aliens. They included Fife, Sanctuary Movement co-founder James Corbett, two priests and a nun. Also included were about half the members of the Lutheran Church Bible Study group.

In a paper published in the University of St. Thomas Law Journal by Law Professor Kristina M. Campbell, she called the case “a startling example of government overreach and overzealous prosecution of non-violent people of faith and conscience.”

James Oines, pastor of Arizona Lutheran Church, said from the stand that he no longer holds Bible study classes because some members of his congregation are afraid to come to the church. “They no longer have faith that the person sitting next to them is revealing his true heart. The deepest aspect of their faith and trust was violated. It turned out that we were as gentle as doves but not so wise as serpents.” (WashingtonPost, June 14, 1985)

Six of the defendants, including Fike, were found guilty of conspiracy to smuggle Central American refugees into the U.S. Three were convicted of lesser charges and two were acquitted.

The judge in the case was bombarded with letters urging leniency in sentencing. They included letters from 47 congressmen.  He ended up giving them all suspended sentences.

Operation Sojourner not only failed to upend the Sanctuary Movement, it made it stronger and increased public awareness and support.

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Other immigration and refugee posts:

Welcoming with One Open Arm

The Forty-Eighters: Immigrants for Social Justice

‘I Know Nothing.’ The Politics of Xenophobia in the 19th Century

Morality, Sexism or Racism?: The Page Act of 1875

Is This the Most Discriminatory Act of Congress Ever?

Ethnocentrism and the Roaring Twenties

FDR’s Black Eye

‘There are the right kind of boat people, it seems, and the wrong kind.’

1980: Good Times/Bad Times for Those Seeking Asylum in the U.S.

It All Started at a Little Church in Tucson

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2 Responses to Operation Sojourner: Spies in the Pews

  1. sportsdiva64 says:

    Operation Soujourner was bound to fail. The abolitionist Soujourner Truth helped slaves to escape, she didn’t tell where they were. This guy Jesus, how ironic, well, as we black folks like to say, “God don’t like ugly”. I just hope the money he and his “nephew” were paid was worth it. Not for nothing, but he’ll get his because the good Lord is ALWAYS watching.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Both a sad and a powerful story, Ken.

    Liked by 1 person

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