United States v. Maria del Scorro Pardo de Aguilar (1985) Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

January 1985

Case Description 

United States v. Maria del Scorro Pardo de Aguilar is a case in which the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) defended sanctuary workers – members of church groups who provided shelter, medical care, and protection for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala – from government prosecution.

In 1982, the government began an investigation of the sanctuary movement, which provided shelter, medical care, and protection for refugees fleeing persecution from Central America. As part of that investigation it utilized “Operation Sojourner,” under which undercover agents attended worship services, Bible study meetings, and internal church discussions. Posing as committed sanctuary workers, they tape-recorded many of these meetings and took part in transporting and protecting refugees.

In January 1985, the U.S. government indicted 16 people, including three nuns, two priests, a minister, and lay volunteers, on 71 counts of conspiracy and transporting and harboring refugees. The indictments were based on information gathered by two government informants.

In a nationwide police action, 58 Central Americans associated with the refugee network were arrested in Phoenix, Seattle, Tucson, Philadelphia, and Rochester. Forty-three persons named as “unindicted co-conspirators” were to be subpoenaed to testify.

CCR attorneys, with others from across the country, offered to aid their defense. Numerous motions to dismiss the indictments, citing international law and the right to religious freedom, were filed along with a motion to suppress all the government’s evidence because it was obtained by the infiltration of churches by agents. The court criticized the government’s use of informants to infiltrate churches, saying that it “sullied the process,” but denied all defense motions.

The trial began in October 1985, and lasted seven months. The judge so limited what the defense could put before the jury that the words “death”, “kill,” and “torture” could not be used in the courtroom.

The judge even went so far as to attempt to force lawyers to use the word “alien” and band the use of the word “refugee.” No testimony was allowed, and he ruled out international law and the conditions in El Salvador and Guatemala. In addition, he decreed that the churches’ belief that helping refugees was legal under international law and the 1980 Refugee Act could not be presented, nor could testimony about the four years of efforts by the sanctuary workers to help improve the discriminatory way that Salvadorans and Guatemalans were treated by the INS. In short, the judge and the prosecutor insisted that the case be tried as a “simple alien smuggling case.”

The jury convicted 8 of the 11 people on trial of 18 counts. The judge, however, sentenced everyone to probation. Despite the convictions, sanctuary workers saw the Tucson trial as a step forward for the movement. The government did not achieve its goal of stopping the movement or ending the positive publicity it received.