Operation Sojourner: The Prosecution of the Practice of Faith

Katherine Holding | December 2020

The reason the government put informants in the church is because they were realizing the power of the movement and that we were getting to be a real problem in terms of the government’s policy in Central America. – Katherine Flaherty, codefendant in US v. Aguilar, in The Nation (July 20/27, 1985)

The Sanctuary Movement placed President Reagan, the purportedly religious immigration-hardliner, in a bind. As the leader of the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan relied heavily on support from the newly-forged Christian right. Although many Evangelicals embraced rigid immigration policies, they also valued the sanctity of religious spaces. Therefore, while many Reagan supporters had no problem with mass deportations, the administration hesitated to cross church thresholds to arrest refugees seeking safety in sanctuaries. This political climate became a catalyst to the Sanctuary Movement, creating its necessity while fostering its viability.

Capitalizing on Reagan’s dilemma, religious leaders and activists began to publicly offer refuge to Central Americans fleeing persecution and violence, inviting them into sanctuary. As the Immigration and Naturalization Service shied away from entering churches to detain immigrants, the Sanctuary Movement grew emboldened.

With rising media attention, the Sanctuary Movement broadcasted the government’s Achilles’ heel. If the INS continued to ignore refugees in sanctuary, the administration would be seen as soft on immigration. But, if the INS detained refugees by violating sanctuary spaces, that, too, would antagonize Reagan’s base. Desperate to attack the movement but reluctant to go after sanctuary seekers, the government targeted the next best thing: sanctuary workers.

What occurred here at our church was really one of the most authentic expressions of religion that I’ve ever seen… And the government completely destroyed that. – Pastor Jim Oilens, Alzona Evangelical Lutheran Church, in The Nation (July 20/27, 1985)

Beginning in December of 1983, the FBI and INS systematically infiltrated, surveilled, and recorded parishes central to the Sanctuary Movement. During the 10-month operation, undercover agents embedded themselves in every level of the movement: they attended planning meetings and participated in rescue missions, repeatedly crossing the border with sanctuary workers. They even went as far as to document all the license plates in sanctuary church parking lots. The government never requested nor received any judicial warrants in connection with Operation Sojourner.

Their tactics surpassed basic reconnaissance and morphed into religious surveillance. In addition to recording planning meetings, agents attended churches with the sole intent of recording services and bible studies to document immigrants in attendance thereby illicitly monitoring constitutionally protected religious rights. While most agents posed as sanctuary workers and parishioners, one agent went so far as to don clerical garments, demonstrating a significant lack of respect for holy practices by falsely portraying spiritual authority. These efforts primarily targeted three Phoenix-based churches: Alzona Evangelical Lutheran, Southside Presbyterian, and Camelback Presbyterian.

Members of the movement quickly embraced FBI informant Jesus Cruz, trusting his amiable demeanor. However, Cruz betrayed that trust for $18,000 in compensation from the federal government. During his infiltration of Alzona Evangelical Lutheran and Southside Presbyterian’s religious activities, Cruz attended fifteen Bible sessions, amassing over 100 hours of recordings and composing a list of attendants, all of which he later turned over to the INS. His testimony and evidence were paramount to the prosecution’s case against 16 high-ranking members of the Sanctuary Movement.

I thought the whole purpose of the Constitution is to keep this kind of thing from happening so that churches don’t have to live in fear. – Pastor Oines

On January 14, 1985, a federal grand jury indicted 16 (later reduced to 12) defendants and named 74 unindicted conspirators, beginning the most notorious legal battle of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement. In US v Aguilar, the prosecution charged 16 defendants with 71 counts of various criminal harboring and illegal transporting of alien charges under 8 U.S.C. § 1324. According to INS Criminal Investigator James Rayburn, “successful prosecution[]… would disband the underground railroad and stop the illegal activities being engaged in by its members.”

Intent on making an example, prosecutor Donald M. Reno targeted the ‘big fish’ of the Sanctuary Movement, namely Rev. John Fife, Jim Corbett, and Darlene Nicgorski as well as members of the Alzona Evangelical Lutheran bible study group. The government hoped that by prosecuting senior members of the organization and proving that no one was above legal reproach, the trial would intimidate other sanctuary workers and thereby dissuade them from continuing to participate in the movement.

[Sending] people paid to do it and wired to do it into places of religious activity, the whole process has been sullied in a sense. – Judge Earl Carroll, U.S. District Court

The prosecution found an unanticipated friend in Judge Earl Carroll who sided heavily with government motions during pre-trial. Most notably he suppressed all testimony concerning international law, persecution in Central America, and religious convictions. With that, the court effectively rendered the defense defenseless.

Carroll matched his harsh treatment of the defense with leniency for the prosecution. Although he asserted that much of the evidence was “sullied,” the judge nevertheless permitted its admission. As such, the defense faced this dilemma in which Reno could introduce all types of damning evidence but the defendants were prohibited from employing almost every defense they had. Those familiar with the case might argue that because Reno chose not to admit Cruz’s recordings in trial, the legal disparity was somewhat attenuated; however, the question is not whether certain evidence was admitted, it is whether that evidence was admissible in the first place.

Given that a fundamental pillar of the Sanctuary Movement was transparency, the prosecution was able to complement the FBI’s reports with copious admissions from various defendants. On March 24, 1982, Rev. Fife announced to the world his intention to open Southside Presbyterian Church as a sanctuary and publicly disobey immigration policy. Following a similar tactic, many churches began the practice of informing the state whenever they accepted someone into sanctuary. Although these statements were not guilty pleas, they were admissible evidence of defendants admitting to criminal activity.

Ultimately, the jury convicted eight of the defendants. Although Carroll employed leniency in his sentencing, many leaders of the Sanctuary Movement left the courtroom with fresh criminal records. But contrary to the government’s expectation, the fight was far from over.

The church is not what the government decides it is. The church is the community of faith. – Pastor Oines, in The Nation (July 20/27, 1985)

Rather than undermining the Sanctuary Movement, US v. Aguilar drew even greater attention and support for the movement. Massive outcries arose across the country, denouncing Operation Sojourner and defending the free exercise of religion.

Representatives for the defendants appealed the conviction, claiming that their fifth amendment right to due process had been denied because of the preclusion of the most persuasive defense testimony. However, the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. later lost a lawsuit (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. U.S.) claiming that Operation Sojourner violated the first and fourth amendments.

Although the Sanctuary Movement lost in the courts, it prevailed in the public sphere. Today the reincarnation of the Sanctuary Movement, the New Sanctuary Movement, continues to provide sanctuary, shielding immigrants from vindictive government policies.