Pilgrims' Progress

Samaritans Straddle The Legal Line.

IN THE RAWBONED lands of Southern Arizona, morality can be a cyclical affair, riding on the complex winds of immigration policy hatched thousands of miles away.

But the simple notion of simply doing right can also rebound like a hurricane.

Just ask John Fife and other veterans of the '80s Sanctuary Movement, who are now bringing their network back to life. Or ask freelance Samaritans like Clara, a life-long border resident who harbors few qualms about doing the right thing--even if it means breaking the law.

Clara lives near Bisbee, and her home has become a haven for pilgrims from Mexico and Central America. Many have come thousands of miles and endured hellish circumstances to improve their lives.

She's cautious enough to request an alias for this story. But she's also defiant enough to harbor immigrants under the noses of federal agents, on a patch of desert she describes as "a war zone."

Every month a handful of fortunate immigrants finds safe haven in her home. And she's not about to close her door.

"We're down here dealing with people who are suffering, people who need food and water," she says. "They show up at your door, and collapse in your arms weeping. How are you going to turn your back on that?"

But these borderland Samaritans also face an agonizing choice: Punishment for harboring or transporting undocumented immigrants can mean up to 10 years in jail and fines of more than $250,000, according to Cathy Colbert of the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona. "We would caution anyone about what it could be worth to their personal freedom," she says.

Jan Weller treaded that fine line on a cold night last March, when she discovered three travelers shivering outside her gate near Palominas, west of Bisbee. "At first my husband said, 'Don't you dare bring them in,'" she says. "But I was standing out there with them, and they were wet and cold. Then I looked back at our house and saw smoke coming out our chimney, and thought, 'I know I can help these people. I can't solve their problems, but I can help them right now.'"

More immigrants were waiting on the road, and Weller eventually found 22 unexpected visitors--including a 10-year-old boy--gathered around her wood-burning stove. By sunrise, Border Patrol agents had picked up the group for return to Mexico.

Weller says she wasn't worried about landing in jail. "The way I look at it, if you are just trying to help and not trying to break the law, it's OK to give them food or whatever until the authorities come."

The dilemma also forces government agencies into a tricky balancing act between enforcing the law and not condemning innocent good deeds. "Clearly, in a situation where there's humanitarian need, any reasonable person would respond with assistance," says Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. At the same time, "It is a felony to harbor undocumented aliens," he says. "If you are caught harboring them, you might very well be in violation of the law."

But while Clara may be crossing that line, actions like Weller's are firmly within legal boundaries, says David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector encompassing southeastern Arizona. "First, people should call the appropriate law enforcement entities," he says. As long as that happens, "We certainly do not discourage (citizens) from helping any individual in distress."

For her part, Clara intends to keep skipping the phone calls. "I am not going there," she says. "I'm not the police. It's not my business to play the Gestapo's agent."

Others are trying to determine just how far the law extends. Bisbee-based Citizens for Border Solutions is consulting attorneys to ascertain just how extensively it can offer food, shelter and medical assistance. The group is planning workshops, and has begun networking with like-minded organizations in neighboring states, says member Roy Goodman.

"We're also trying to get information to people coming across that, hey, when you cross the border, you're not just going to go a couple of miles where there's going to be a highway or a town," he says. "That's why people are dying--even people with infants are going willy-nilly into the wilderness."

THE BUDDING NETWORK has also revitalized many veterans of the Sanctuary Movement, including Rev. John Fife. In 1986 Fife, the minister of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church, was among eight activists convicted on various alien-smuggling charges, stemming from an underground railroad the group operated for refugees from civil war-torn Central America.

Fife served five years' probation for his efforts. Today, the minister says a new assistance movement called Humane Borders is "just beginning to be organized, as Sanctuary was in the very beginning. Faith communities are meeting to address the whole set of moral issues along the border.

"The same standards (of Sanctuary) apply--we're going to be public about everything we do, because it's part of the obligation to change immoral and disastrous immigration policies."

He considers it among the "best traditions along the borderlands. People in this region have always responded to human need with compassion."

Already Humane Borders has begun cooperative efforts with other Tucson humanitarian groups such as Derechos Humanos and the American Friends Service Committee. One of the coalition's first efforts was establishing water stations in the desert, at spots where immigrants have died from dehydration.

But the overall breadth of this compassion, whether simply providing food and temporary shelter, or breaking the law by hiding and transporting immigrants, "is up to each individual," Fife says. "This is going to be a movement that says 'Help as you feel it's appropriate, given the situation.' In my experience, some people are willing to give transportation, and some are just willing to give a glass of water."

According to Rev. Robin Hoover of Tucson's First Christian Church, Humane Borders has incorporated as a non-profit with the Arizona Corporation Commission. But it will avoid seeking a non-profit tax status, thereby allowing members to influence public policy debates without fear of reprisal from the IRS.

Hoover says the group will keep a sharp focus on INS policies and procedures. But such efforts cost money, time and plenty of clout. To increase its share of all three, Humane Borders representatives have approached the politically powerful Pima County Interfaith Council for assistance.

MEANWHILE, MORE ominous echoes of the Sanctuary days also rumble through the region. The government earned much bad press by infiltrating the earlier organization and aggressively prosecuting its members. Modern-day activists likewise report many rumors of plain-clothed "agent provocateurs" among their ranks. This makes people very cautious about discussing their assistance, says Roy Goodman.

Russ Bergeron of the INS doesn't deny that his agency uses informants along the border, but says he's "obviously not going to comment on specific activities."

The resulting paranoia is tempering good-deeders--and can even drive a wedge between friendships. Bisbee architect Todd Bogatay discovered that on the day before Easter, when a band of immigrants arrived at his doorstep. He says a pal who was also visiting buckled out of fear, and called the Border Patrol as the travelers slept.

"I was planning to feed them, put them up overnight, and let them go on their way," Bogatay says. "As it turned out, I felt like I was leading lambs to the slaughter when we turned them over to the Border Patrol. It was very upsetting. They were young kids with bright eyes and bushy tails, and I didn't see why I had to do that. It kind of broke our friendship right there."

Jan Weller's experience with the pilgrims ended on a more uplifting note. "They were very courteous, very nice and appreciative," she says. "They were even concerned about getting mud on the floor. The little boy had a plastic-covered picture of Jesus, and he tried to give to me, to thank me for helping him. I told him to keep it, that he needed the help."

Her husband eventually softened his stance and their young daughter also joined the gathering. "It just moved all of us," she says. "We were so thankful for what we had, and we felt so sorry for these people."

For her part, Clara continues taking that sympathy a step farther. And she gets her cues from a force she calls far more powerful than xenophobic lawmakers. "I'm pretty religious in my belief," she says. "There's a scripture in the Book of Deuteronomy that when strangers enter your land you do not hinder them, but you treat them as if they were born there.

"So what law am I going to obey? Am I going to obey what God says and do the Samaritan thing? Jesus made the point that if you find somebody with a need and you turn your back and walk away, you are going to be facing God himself."

She leans forward and rests her chin on a balled fist. "That's the bottom line on this whole thing," she says. "Our government is creating a problem here that does not need to be created. If they stick it in my yard and in my house and in my face, I'm going to do what I think I should do. Period."