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Church Closes Shelter That Housed 10,000 Central American Refugees

October 30, 1986

SAN BENITO, Texas (AP) _ A Roman Catholic shelter that housed more than 10,000 Central American refugees over four years was closed today, and the last 500 residents were bused to a Immigration and Naturalization Service center.

The Brownsville diocese rented three buses to transport the refugees into Harlingen, where they face a review of their immigration status.

Of the more than 500 people at the center, about half were men and at least 100 were children, officials said.

Officials said about 50 Salvadorans had arrived at the Casa Oscar Romera shelter only Wednesday night, apparently fleeing the recent earthquake.

The city of San Benito had asked the Roman Catholic Church in August to move the shelter because of a fight that month between residents of the shelter and the surrounding neighborhood. After the disturbance, the church moved the male refugees to the county fairgrounds.

The 260 women and children remained, and the next month, the population at the shelter reached a high of 560. It was built to accomodate 200.

″We could stay at Casa Romero indefinitely, but we have been ordered by the city to vacate. We have not been told there are any ordinances that we violate,″ diocese spokesman Hernan Gonzalez said Wednesday, adding that it could take six months to find a new shelter.

The men who had been staying at the fairground also were taken to Harlingen.

Since the shelter opened in December 1982, the church has spent $250,000 to run it. More than 10,000 Central Americans made it their first stop after crossing the Rio Grande on their way into the United States.

City Manager Demetrio Lucio said the aliens will not be allowed to return to Casa Romero because of tension between the refugees and nearby residents. He said extra police and sheriff’s deputies will be on duty in the neighborhood this weekend.

A former director of the shelter, Jack Elder, was prosecuted for transportation of illegal aliens and was sentenced to five months in a halfway house earlier this year after refusing to accept two years’ probation.

Elder and others in the sanctuary movement maintain that the Central Americans, mostly from Nicaragua and El Salvador, are political refugees who would be persecuted if they returned to their countries.

The U.S. government contends they are immigrants seeking better economic conditions.

The district INS director, Omar Sewell, said the shelter was a magnet that drew Central Americans to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and he was glad it was closing.

He said the aliens can be bonded, but many said they don’t have the money. Or, Sewell said, they could be released ″in status″ - or on their own recognizance.

The aliens also could be deported, voluntarily returned home or detained, Sewell said.

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