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New refugee camp opens in Rio Grande Valley

By MACK SISK

HARLINGEN, Texas -- A non-profit group says it will petition the United Nations to recognize as a bonafide refugee camp a new border shelter it is opening for Central Americans this weekend near the Rio Grande.

At the same time, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, who consider the immigrants -- primarily Salvadorans and Guatemalans -- to be illegal aliens, say they will monitor the new Refugio del Rio Grande for any violations of federal law.

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The refuge is sponsored by the International Indian Treaty Council, an organization which acts as a non-governmental observer for the United Nations. It is designed to provide shelter, food, clothing, medical, legal and social services for hundreds of Central Americans entering the United States each month.

One of the founders is Harlingen attorney Lisa Brodyaga, who also started Proyecto Libertad four years ago to advise the hundreds of Salvadorans and Guatemalans being held as deportable aliens at the INS's Bayview Detention Center.

'A petition for recognition of, and assistance to the refugio as a refugee camp, will be made by the IITC to the United Nations High Commissioner on refugees in Geneva, Switzerland, once Refugio is open and has received refugees in residence,' Brodyaga and co-founders Pedro Farela and Margaret Singer said in statement announcing official dedication ceremonies on Saturday.

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Such U.N. recognition would run counter to INS policies of treating most Salvadorans and Guatemalans as purely 'economic refugees' which come to the United States looking for jobs, rather than as political refugees fleeing violence in their native countries.

Refugio del Rio joins Casa Oscar Romero at nearby San Benito as the Rio Grande Valley's two major shelters for Central Americans in an area which has the highest influx of Salvadorans and Guatemalans along the 1,933-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Three former volunteers at Casa Oscar Romero, sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, were convicted of immigration violations last year for conspiring to transport illegal aliens.

'It is important to note that all the proposed activities of the Refugio have been crafted to stay within even the most restrictive parameters of the law as interpreted by the U.S. Government,' the group's statement said.

Brownsville Bishop John Joseph Fitzpatrick, who began Casa Romero more than three years ago, will preside at a religious ceremony at Saturday's dedication.

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