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Change of Venue Denied, Trial Date Set for Sanctuary Worker

January 4, 1985

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) _ A federal judge has refused to grant a change of venue in the trial of a man charged with illegally transporting Salvadoran refugees in the United States.

″The information I have received is not sufficient to convince me the defendant could not receive a fair trial in this district,″ U.S. District Judge Hayden Head Jr. said Thursday.

Head set a Jan. 21 trial date for Jack Elder, who was arrested April 13 and charged with transporting three Salvadorans from a Catholic Church-sponsored halfway house to a bus station in Harlingen.

Elder, 41, directs a halfway house for refugees and said he was exercising his religious beliefs by aiding what he said were political refugees from the wartorn Central American nation.

A volunteer at the center, Stacey Lynn Merkt, 30, was convicted in May on the same charge stemming from a different incident and was placed on two years’ probation.

Head also denied several defense motions to dismiss the charges, including one based on immigration and international law. Defense lawyers had claimed that the Salvadorans were legally in the country because they were fleeing persecution in their native land.

The defense also had claimed that Elder acted properly because of the circumstances.″The fact that you had 50,000 civilians killed (in El Salvador) is justification,″ said defense lawyer Steve Cooper.

Elder’s supporters say his arrest was part of a crackdown by federal authorities on people helping refugees and opposing U.S. policies in El Salvador.

They also claim the aliens are political refugees protected by the Refugee Act of 1980 and are not illegal aliens seeking jobs, as the government claims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Guerra has said the government does not consider the case part of a crackdown, but rather a ″simple alien transport case.″

Elder has been indicted twice. The second indictment, in December, charged him with transporting illegal aliens, conspiracy and bringing illegal aliens into the country.

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