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Crowded church shelter for illegal aliens causes stir in small Texas community

At first glance, the small wood and stucco structure looks like it might be a living museum, re-creating the missions that once dotted the Southwest. Brown-skinned men mill about in groups of three or four, while chatty women on a covered porch wash beans and cut up yellowed broccoli for the noon meal. Young children play in a circle with sticks and rocks, while their older siblings raise dust over a game of soccer.

This is no museum, however, but Casa Oscar Romero, a shelter for aliens in this small Rio Grande Valley town. The shelter, owned by the Brownsville, Texas, Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, houses as many as 200 aliens at a time. Most are Salvadoreans fleeing a six-year-old civil war, but there are also Nicaraguans and other Central Americans. Almost all of them are in the United States illegally.

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With the lines and pathos of Picasso's ``Guernica,'' a mural on one wall of the house depicts the assassination of the Salvadorean archbishop for whom the house is named. In another sense, the mural tells the tale of the people who come to Casa Romero.

``One woman here saw her whole family killed before her eyes,'' says Sister Ninfa Garza, the shelter's director. ``Many of the boys are here to escape fighting the war.''

Sister Garza is careful to distance herself from illegal activities, mindful that the shelter's former directors are in jail for transporting undocumented aliens across the border. ``I personally don't do transportation,'' she says, her Nike tennis shoes and socks contrasting with her practical blue skirt and white blouse. She adds that even when outsiders come around looking for laborers, she lets the residents handle things themselves.

Sister Garza describes Casa Romero as a ``resting place'' for aliens to spend two or three days without fear of ``trouble'' from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She describes the hands-off policy of the INS as ``a beautiful mystery,'' but in fact the policy is well thought out.

The nearby INS detention center in Port Isabel has begun releasing Central Americans on bond to Casa Romero to relieve crowding. ``Most of [Casa Romero's] cases are now documented,'' says Silvestre Reyes, the area Border Patrol's chief agent. He adds that ``the adverse publicity from going in there wouldn't be worth the small number of undocumented cases we'd find.''

In any case, the policy of releasing aliens on bond to the shelter is causing Casa Romero problems, since overcrowding, due in part to extended stays, is drawing complaints from neighbors. San Benito's mayor recently asked that the shelter be moved from its residential neighborhood.

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