Stories of Sanctuary helpers
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
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
Her bosses at Big Blue never
learned that Otter, a computer engineer with two
grown daughters, had been stopped for people
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
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
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,
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
Pedersen has her own book about
her experiences, "A Coyote's Tale," ready to
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
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