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Sanctuary and the long arm of the law. Can immigration policy be rescued from partisan politics?

COURT verdicts resolve specific cases, not long-term issues. And political and social questions embodied in some disputes are often never adjudicated, even through the appeals process. So it is with the broader concepts swirling around the sanctuary movement. These have to do with conscience on the one hand and commitment to the rule of law on the other. They are not likely to be resolved in courtrooms or even by Congress or state legislatures.

Take, for example, the recent highly publicized and deeply controversial six-month trial in Phoenix, Ariz. of 11 church workers accused of giving refuge to illegal aliens. It resulted in the conviction of six of the defendants for conspiring to smuggle Salvadorans and Guatemalans into the United States. Two others were found guilty of harboring or transporting illegal aliens. Sentencing is scheduled for July 1.

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Regardless of the verdict, both sides claim to have won in terms of achieving key goals. Government prosecutors say that the jury's findings served notice on the sanctuary movement nationwide that violation of immigration laws won't be tolerated anywhere in the US. But many of the defendants insist that their resolve to help refugees, especially those fleeing political oppression, has been strengthened by the trial and its attendant publicity.

The verdict is ``only going to make people more committed,'' says Philip Willis-Conger, a young Methodist lay worker from Tucson, Ariz., who was among those convicted. ``Historically, people of faith who have been persecuted for doing what was right have, in the long run, won out,'' he explains.

But Alan Nelson, commissioner of immigration and naturalization, sees it differently. ``Above all, this case has demonstrated that no group, no matter how well meaning or highly motivated, can violate the laws of the United States,'' Mr. Nelson stresses. ``Perhaps now . . . those of the sanctuary movement can redirect their energy in a manner within the law.''

Many will agree, at least in part, with both points of view. Moral protest has deep roots, religious and otherwise, in the US. But the rule of law indicates that a clear line must be drawn between free speech and illegal action. The first is indigenous to a democratic society. The latter invites anarchy.

No one has a right to break the law even for reasons of ethical conviction. Those who do -- even to make a point -- risk punishment. Through the years, those engaging in civil disobedience have realized that there is a price to pay, and have been willing to pay it.

In the Phoenix case, the jury was charged with examining actions rather than motives in determining guilt or innocence. The latter, however, may come into play in the penalty phase of the trial. One hopes that justice will be tempered with compassion when it comes to sentencing.

Regardless, neither the resolve of the sanctuary movement to aid fleeing aliens whom they believe have been persecuted abroad, nor the determination of the government to stop the harboring of illegals is likely to abate. Barring some agreement, more smuggling and more prosecutions are on the horizon.

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Meanwhile, the sanctuary issue itself has become enveloped in a broader partisan controversy over immigration policy. Reagan Republicans talk a tough line about cracking down on all illegal aliens and those who help smuggle them into the US. But some liberal Democrats insist that the administration actually maintains a ``double standard'' for those who seek sanctuary -- taking a more sympathetic stance toward those fleeing a communist country.

In fact, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service stopped the deportation of eight Nicaraguans in Miami recently. Reportedly, this was in line with what may be a new interpretation of the 1980 Refugee Act by the Justice Department. This interpretation presumes that anyone fleeing a communist or Marxist regime, such as that in Nicaragua, would have well-founded fears of persecution -- and, according to US law, be entitled to political asylum.

US Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of New Mexico, anticipating such a change in policy, has charged that blanket asylum for Nicaraguans, and not for Salvadorans, is patently unfair. Senator DeConcini is proposing federal legislation that would give both groups the same protection and asylum privileges.

Roger Conner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says it is unfortunate that US immigration policy has become entangled in partisan disputes.

``We must find ways to insulate the process of immigration from political pressures,'' says the head of this Washington-based research group. Mr. Conner stresses that asylum should be determined on an ``independent'' and case-by-case basis. ``There should be a single standard: a well-founded fear of persecution.

``Churches shouldn't decide who gets in. Neither should Congress nor the attorney general,'' he says.

A Thursday column

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