Casa de Cambios Time and Change at Brownsville’s Casa Romero BY ROBERT KAHN Brownsville LIKE BULLFIGHTS and God, the Casa Oscar Romero is a thing nobody knows much about, but about which everyone has an opinion. Its volunteer workers have been called heroes, and thrown in jail as alien smugglers. It is a house of refuge and a way station for coyotes. It has been denounced for having a political agenda and criticized for having no agenda at all. It has been closed down, fined, run out of San Benito, sued, reopened in Brownsville, and written up in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and El Nuevo Diario de Managua. A vocal group of Brownsville residents wish it would close down and disappear forever. Others wish a dozen more Casas Romero would open up. On September 27 the U.S. Border Patrol raided the shelter and arrested 35 Casa Romero occupants. It was the first time the Patrol had raided the house, which has been run openly by the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville since 1982, though three house workers have been convicted of violating immigration laws and two served time in prison. The Border Patrol raided the house after KRGV television reporter Bill Young showed Border Patrol agents an unedited videotape of interviews he had conducted inside the grounds of Casa Romero. Young, a conservative and a self-described admirer of the late Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, said he found a number of Indian nationals at the house and asked Border Patrol agents for a comment. Agents showed up at his studio and asked to see the unedited videotape and Young said he complied. In his successful request for a search warrant Patrol Agent Fernando Chavarria listed Young as a reliable source. Jerry Hicks, deputy chief of the Border Patrol in the McAllen district, said after the raid that the Border Patrol had never had probable cause to seek a search warrant until Young showed them the videotape. The raid on Casa Romero, the circumstances surrounding it, and the community’s reaction to it, all show that residents and media organizations in the lower Rio Grande Valley can no longer distinguish the Casa Romero from the complex problems it has come to represent. Many people and media organizations view Casa Romero as a left Robert Kahn is city editor of the Brownsville Herald. wing refugee hideout, established to make a statement about U.S. Central American policy and to defy immigration laws. But it’s not as simple as that. Casa Romero has been scorned by politically motivated refugee workers for the past five years, and the house caused the greatest controversy in the days after it had abandoned whatever political agenda it once may have had. The history of Casa Oscar Romero reflects the changing pattern of Central American immigration through the lower Rio Grande Valley, and the area’s volatile response to it. “Casa Romero opened up in response to refugees being at the church’s door,” said Hernan Gonzalez, director of Christian services for the Diocese of Brownsville. “I think in the debate some people have lost sight of that. We didn’t open up and then say, ‘Come on down; we’re open.’ We opened up as a response.” Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador and eloquent defender of the country’s poor majority, was assassinated March 24, 1980 while he said Mass at a cancer clinic. Romero’s murder occurred early in a wave of political killings by right-wing death squads. For two years in El Salvador, more than 1,000 people a month were dragged from their homes and murdered, often after being tortured. In late 1982, as Salvadoran refugees from the death-squad terror began streaming into Brownsville, local church members asked permission to use abandoned church property in San Benito to house some refugees they had befriended. The original Casa Romero, a little white house at 311 Wentz Avenue, was directed by Rosemary Smith, a lay worker with the Maryknoll order of nuns. Smith had been a missionary in El Salvador for more than a decade. In early 1983, Vietnam veteran Jack Elder became house director. “There were perhaps six or eight people staying there at a time,” Elder said, “20 or 30 a month, mostly Salvadorans.” By the following spring, about 20 people stayed at Casa Romero each night. “But the nationalities stayed the same,” Elder said, “mostly Salvadorans, a few Guatemalans, a few Hondurans and Nicaraguans.” By 1984, Casa Romero had become the most visible symbol of the sanctuary movement, a church-backed effort to draw attention to the plight of Central American refugees. More than 200 churches throughout the country had declared themselves sanctuaries, and defied U.S. immigration laws by harboring refugees. Elder and his co-worker, Stacey Merkt, would be the first two sanctuary workers sentenced to jail. \(Elder’s sentence was eventually reduced to six months In March 1984, a Protestant minister in Brownsville told attorney Daniel Sheehan that a Brownsville FBI agent had warned him that Catholic sanctuary activists were bringing into the country “known communist terrorists” who constituted a “potential threat to the national security of the United States.” The refugees could become “military cadres” to attack U.S. military bases, communications centers and water systems “in the event that President Reagan had to initiate a direct military action by U.S. forces into Central America, either into El Salvador or into Nicaragua,” the FBI agent told the minister. Sheehan, a member of the Catholic Christic Institute in Washington, D.C., had served as chief counsel in the Karen Silkwood and Three Mile Island lawsuits. He defended Stacey Merkt against alien-smuggling charges stemming from her work at Casa Romero. The Bishop of Brownsville, John Joseph Fitzpatrick, had said Casa Romero was to be a humanitarian shelter, not to be used as a political tool against Reagan Administration policies. But throughout the 1980s, anti-Catholic sentiment combined with anti-immigration forces, and born-again patriotism to intensify political polarization in an area that is predominantly poor, Catholic, and Hispanic. Secondand thirdgeneration Hispanic Americans increasingly joined the anti-sanctuary forces. Most local Border Patrol officers are secondand third-generation Mexican Americans. CASA ROMERO became a political football, and the football turned into a bomb. The fuse was lit by the issue of Nicaragua. Gonzalez said Elder refused to admit Nicaraguans, “period.” Elder, and at least 10 volunteers who worked with him, deny this. “We tried not to turn anybody away,” Elder said, “but there came a time when we had to draw a line. We said Nicaraguans are not fleeing death squads. They are fleeing a lack of consumer goods in the market. But that’s not the same thing. So we were accused of being political.” Elder said he got many calls from church workers who wanted to house Nicaraguans at Casa Romero. “I’d ask if they had money and they’d say, ‘Yes.’ I’d ask if they had family to stay with and they’d say, ‘Yes, in Miami.’ So I’d 10 NOVEMBER 9, 1990
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