Citizen Sanctuary

The Sanctuary Movement was a religious and political campaign that began in the early 1980s to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. It responded to restrictive federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.

Between 1980 and 1991, nearly 1 million Central Americans fled to the U.S. In El Salvador, the military killed over 10,000 people. In Guatemala, government-backed paramilitary groups killed 50,000, disappeared 100,000 and perpetrated 626 village massacres.

Congress forbid foreign aid to countries committing human rights abuses, and it is well documented that the U.S. provided funds, training and arms to the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

 Because admitting these governments’ abuses would bar the U.S. from providing further aid, the Reagan administration instead argued that Central Americans were “economic migrants” fleeing poverty, not governmental repression.

Sanctuary formed as a reaction to these policies. In 1980, Jim Corbett, Jim Dudley, John Fife and a handful of other residents of Tucson, Arizona began providing legal, financial and material aid to Central American refugees.

Their decision to do so—and therefore openly oppose federal law—was inspired by a mixture of shocking refugee stories, personal encounter, political sympathies and religious conviction.

Movement members likened Sanctuary to the “Underground Railroad” of the 19th century: Refugees coming through Tucson would make it to Nogales (the nearest border town in Mexico) and find refuge at El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe) Catholic Church. With help from the head priest at Our Lady, they would travel across the border to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, whose steeple was visible from Mexico. There they could find shelter, food, legal advice and perhaps a little money. The two churches kept in constant contact, and priests and lay people traveled frequently between parishes.

36% of Sanctuary congregations were Catholic, 22% were Presbyterian, 36% were Quakers, 28% were Unitarian, 2% Jewish, 10% came from university campuses and 1% from seminaries.

Secular groups also embraced the Sanctuary Movement, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, legal aid groups, liberal members of Congress and student organizations. Sanctuary supports wrote articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. The entire city of Berkeley, California declared itself a sanctuary.

Writer Barbara Kingsolver popularized the movement in her 1998 novel The Bean Trees, in which she provides a fictional account of a Sanctuary member housing refugees in her Tucson home.

Many of the Sanctuary supports were prosecuted or thrown in jail.  Our government, in maintaining economic ties with oppressive regimes, oppressed its own people.

This is a story that needs to be told.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

QUESTION authority figures

KNOW your country’s history

EXPLORE news from unbiased sources

WITHHOLD judgment

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