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Defense Seeks Dismissal Of Immigration Charges In Sanctuary Case

January 12, 1985

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) _ The director of a refugee halfway house was following his religious beliefs when he gave three Salvadorans a ride to a bus station, a church leader testified Friday.

Jack Elder, 41, who runs Casa Oscar Romero in San Benito, Texas, where refugees can find temporary shelter, is charged with illegally transporting three Salvadoran refugees to a bus station in Harlingen last March.

Defense lawyers are seeking to have the indictment dismissed because they say Elder was exercising his religious freedom when he helped the refugees.

At a federal court hearing on the dismissal motion,George Solana, a volunteer coordinator for the Texas Catholic Conference, said Elder was motivated by concern for Salvadorans.

″His commitment is the strongest I have witnessed,″ Solana said. ″He is a very committed man - religiously.″

He said Salvadorans are ″living in a country where their human rights are being taken away from them. They are being killed, beaten, raped.″

U.S. District Judge Hayden Head Jr. cautioned that ″this court is not able to try what’s going on in El Salvador. That’s a foreign policy issue, a congressional issue. We cannot become embroiled in a controversy about El Salvador.″

Defense lawyer Steve Cooper asked Solana if driving undocumented aliens to a bus station would be an exercise of religious values.

″Yes,″ Solana said. ″That would be consistent.″

Elder is due to go on trial Jan. 21. If convicted, he faces a maximum prison term of five years and a $3,000 fine.

His attorneys contend that the government singled Elder out for prosecution.

Robin Alexander, an attorney for Texas Rural Legal Aid in the valley, said that she works with undocumented aliens regularly, and that it is common for American citizens to drive aliens to places they need to go.

The hearing adjourned for the day and was to resume next Wednesday.

Elder’s supporters claim his arrest is part of a crackdown by federal authorities on people helping refugees and opposing U.S. support for the government of El Salvdor in its civil war with leftists.

The supporters also claim the aliens are political refugees protected by the Refugee Act of 1980. But government prosecutors have described the case as a simple alien transport case and deny any political undercurrents.

Stacey Lynn Merkt, 30, a volunteer at the halfway house, was convicted of conspiracy in the case last May and sentenced to two years probation.

Last December, Elder and Ms. Merkt were charged in a similar case.

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