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Sanctuary leader goes to jail

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Sanctuary Movement activist Stacey Lynn Merkt entered a federal prison during the second month of her pregnancy to serve a six-month sentence for conspiring to transport illegal aliens from El Salvador.

Although her appeals have not been exhausted, Merkt chose to surrender and begin serving the prison term Thursday at the Fort Worth Federal Correctional Institution in hopes she can be free when her first child is due in August.

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Merkt, 32, was accompanied to the prison by her husband, her lawyer and a handful of supporters. One of the activists, Laurie LeMel, said, 'As she entered the prison, she told us to take risks and do it for justice.'

Merkt twice has been convicted on charges arising from her work in the Sanctuary Movement, which, on religious and humanitarian grounds, opposes laws that prevent people it considers political refugees from the wars in El Salvador and other Central American nations from entering the United States.

On Feb. 21, 1985, she and Jack Elder, director of Casa Oscar Romero - a now-closed refugee center sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese in Brownsville, Texas -- were convicted of conspiracy to transport illegal Salvadoran aliens from Brownsville to a bus station in Harlingen.

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In 1984, Merkt was convicted on a felony charge of alien transportation. U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela sentenced her to 90 days in jail, suspended the sentence and put her on two years probation with a warning he would treat a second offense more harshly.

At the time, Merkt said, 'I find it incredibly hard to believe what names me a felon is an act of helping people.'

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Merkt's appeal of her second conviction, but her lawyer, Lisa Brodyaga, said she would take the case to the Supreme Court while Merkt serves the 179-day sentence.

Merkt, a Richmond, Calif., native, spoke at a prayer meeting of about 70 Sanctuary Movement supporters Wednesday night in Dallas, saying, 'I feel lucky that I have a community to support me. I'm not alone.'

Prison spokeswoman Charlotte Barron said Merkt's pregnancy would be attended to while she is incarcerated.

'We have pregnant inmates all the time,' Barron said. 'We have community doctors that will conduct checkups and provide counseling for all of them.'

Merkt was affiliated with the Bijou House Religious Community in Colorado Springs, Colo., before she moved to the Rio Grande Valley in 1983 to work for Casa Oscar Romero, named after the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated while saying mass after criticizing right-wing death squads in the country.

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