Stories of Sanctuary helpers
 Feb. 3, 2005
By Tom Beal
Elna Otter never told her IBM Tucson colleagues why she was often late for work in the mid-'80s. She kept breaking down in a series of beat-up clunkers loaned to her after her new Toyota was confiscated under federal racketeering statutes.
Her bosses at Big Blue never learned that Otter, a computer engineer with two grown daughters, had been stopped for people smuggling.
Two decades back, many of the folks carefully eluding (or not) the Border Patrol checkpoints on Southern Arizona's roads were regular Joes and grandmothers and mothers with baby seats in their cars. They sometimes had children on board - their own or those of the Central American refugees they carried.
The smugglers were Quakers and Catholics and Protestants and the occasional non-believer - all members of a Sanctuary movement ultimately endorsed by more than 2,000 churches, synagogues and meetings.
A new book of first-person tales, "The Sanctuary Experience: Voices of the Community," edited by Otter and Dorothy Pine, introduces you to the famous and the lesser-known veterans of the decade-long campaign to provide asylum to refugees from war-torn Central America countries.
You may have heard a lot of these names, particularly the 16 arrested in January 1985, which included the group's well-known leaders, the late Jim Corbett and the Rev. John Fife. Others may surprise you.
Carla Ewald Pedersen was raising four children, was married to a local lawyer who had been chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party and was managing the re-election campaign of Sheriff Clarence Dupnik when she became involved.
It was the summer of 1980, shortly after 12 Salvadorans and a Mexican smuggler had died in the desert near Ajo. Sheriff's deputies were appalled by the scene, and the sheriff was incensed when survivors were arrested and faced deportation.
Pedersen said Dupnik called and told her: "You've got to get these people out of my jail."
Pedersen began making calls to local churches. She found people to help, people who were already putting up bail and helping refugees file applications for asylum - and working in various, less official ways.
She became a Sanctuary volunteer for the next nine years.
She drove refugees from the border and helped set up other runs. She writes about borrowing a car from Randy Udall, son of Rep. Morris K. Udall, D-Ariz., for a couple of runs. A Sanctuary worker slapped an "I love Reagan" bumper sticker on Udall's Datsun B-210 as camouflage. Randy Udall's father was puzzled when he saw that.
She said her four children, 9 to 16 years old at the time, helped, as did neighbors who donated clothing, prepared food, taught English.
Two elderly women volunteered to watch the block for Border Patrol vehicles. One of her son's high school teachers, who went home to Sonoita on weekends, became a spy, reporting the days of operation of the Border Patrol checkpoint.
Pedersen has her own book about her experiences, "A Coyote's Tale," ready to publish.
Pedersen said her family learned from its involvement. When they said "grace" before meals, the refugees "would be thanking God for all of their blessings, and they had only the clothes on their back. Their names were on death squad lists in El Salvador."
Aili MacDonald, 5 when her mother, Nena, went on trial in the Sanctuary case, writes that she also learned lessons. She met the refugee families and played with their children.
Her parents told her what was going on, that these people had escaped from people who wanted to hurt them, that her mother might be sent to prison for helping them. She tried to help during a break in the trial by smiling at the federal judge and asking if he liked ice cream.
MacDonald writes that she realized early "that people could be cruel to each other. Along with that realization dawned the conviction that it was the responsibility of all people to help one another. If there was cruelty we could overcome it through kindness."
Example, said Otter, is the reason she compiled these stories.
"I really wanted to encourage people to practice their faith. There was nothing special about what we did. We were no nicer than other people, except that we practiced our faith," Otter said.
Otter made many trips to, and across, the Mexican border to pick up refugees, even after the U.S. Justice Department infiltrated the church groups and indicted those 16 Sanctuary workers. Eleven were eventually tried and eight convicted of violating immigration laws. They were given suspended sentences of three to five years in July 1986.
It was during the trial that Otter lost that "almost brand-new Toyota," the lead car of three stopped by the Border Patrol near the border town of Naco. They were carrying two families of Salvadoran refugees.
Otter, who now lives in Cascabel, wasn't charged, but her car was jailed for nine months.
● Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or