Sanctuary Movement (1980 - )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Sanctuary Movement

Across the desert of southwestern Arizona several people walk, having left a Guatemalan or Salvadoran village several days before. It is 1981. Earlier, they traveled by crowded bus or car north into Mexico, then—with the help of guides (called coyotes)—headed toward the United States. Their families and neighbors encouraged them to leave their homeland, after friends and associates were tortured and murdered by uniformed death squads, after young sons from their area had been carried away as conscripts for the military. Those killed had done nothing more than read the Bible or teach catechism, with a nun and priest who had helped them form a cooperative and build a well and community shelter.

Having followed guides through a barbed-wire fence on the American border, then over a mountain range, they are now on their own, with little idea of their exact location. And they wonder, will anyone help once they reach their destination? The coyotes probably abandoned the group for several reasons. They may have thought, first of all, that this mission is doomed; and they want to avoid discovery, fearing they might lose the opportunity of offering their illicit, expensive “services” to other refugees.

Both adults and children in the group must make their way quickly, secretly. Their water supply may not hold out. What they fear most is being arrested as illegal aliens and returned to their country, since returnees are seldom heard of again. (Many are also arrested in Mexico or in the U.S. and held in prison, knowing nothing of their rights.) One thing for sure, they will never sign a form enabling U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities to send them back home....

Some variation of this story unfolded many times during the early 1980s, along the Mexican-American border from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, across to Lower California and the Pacific Ocean. Such stories, almost a literary genre, resemble earlier ones involving black families leaving the South prior to the Civil War; Jews escaping Germany and elsewhere in Europe during the 1930s; Tibetans abandoning their homeland after the Chinese invasion and seeking refuge in India during the 1960s, and others escaping repression in this cruel century.

In a special irony, these Central American refugees fled governments that have enjoyed extensive military and economic aid from the United States; and the death squads who killed their families and neighbors are armed with weapons from, and trained by experts at military posts in, “the land of the free.” Although the suffering endured by Central Americans resembles that of the world’s refugees, the circumstances that provoked their suffering are peculiar. So are the events that led to the harassment endured by U.S. citizens trying to stop it.

The story of the Sanctuary Movement, in other words, is twofold, involving (1) landless peasants and some city-dwellers facing death in Central America; and (2) “ordinary” middle-class citizens of the U.S. risking jail in order to protect them. The first part of the story, recounted above, has its origins in the structural violence of a system that keeps people illiterate and landless. The second part, discussed below, has its origins in the structural violence of a system in the U.S. that fosters ignorance and irresponsibility.

As their only hope of survival, the refugees escaped the conditions of one system by leaving their native countries. The second group, U.S. citizens of the Sanctuary Movement, challenged and altered slightly the conditions of the other system, as previous citizens of this country have done, by acts of courage. They resisted unjust laws and risked civil disobedience; more importantly, they built a community of support in order to correct the injustices which they had previously tolerated.

Although the American side of the story began in the Southwest, it gradually involved many areas of the U.S., as people’s awareness of the conditions among refugees became known and churches, religious congregations, and households opened their doors, in states as far apart as Minnesota and Maine. As their education—a kind of radicalization—progressed, citizens of the U.S. began to make connections between themselves and their neighbors and the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and the border scene described above. As a result, they reclaimed “a preferential option for the poor,” the same one to which the Latin American church had committed itself at Medellin in 1968 after the Second Vatican Council. In a more secular, political manner, U.S. citizens also reminded themselves (and others) of Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that “government is for the living.”

The initial response in the early 1980s to the Central Americans who showed up along the Southern Arizona border could hardly have been more modest. Local residents, even those who knew something about conditions in Central America, thought these Spanish-speaking refugees were simply Mexicans coming into the state to work. Gradually, a Quaker rancher, Jim Corbett, and clergy who had spoken with Salvadorans in prison learned why so many refugees took dangerous risks to escape their governments.

By 1981, an estimated eighty Salvadorans a week, on their way to the U.S., were deported by the Mexican government. This happened as a result of a “neighborly” agreement with the U.S. government. By June of that year, Jim Corbett had talked with enough refugees to realize that rather than being illegal aliens, they were actually “political refugees, deserving political asylum in the United States,” as Miriam Davidson writes in her powerful narrative about Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement.

Since 1981 and particularly in 1984, the year the government indicted eleven Sanctuary workers for housing the refugees, the story resembles those of other ordinary Americans responding to injustice. Although the details and events reflect the peculiarities of the Reagan/Bush administration and its “war against the poor” in the U.S. and its war against “the threat” of liberation theology, Sanctuary members behaved rather as residents of New England once did when they refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 requiring them to return slaves to their slave masters. By yet another underground railway during the Vietnam War, ministers and teachers helped draft resisters or soldiers who were denied conscientious objector status to escape to Canada.

By its Central American policy under Reagan, the United States supported increased repression in Guatemala and El Salvador. Meanwhile, along its Southwestern border, Americans accepted the immigration office’s description of the refugees as “just some more Mexican aliens” coming over the border to make money; in reality, they were political refugees with a legitimate claim—according to a United Nations ruling—to political asylum. Fortunately, some “helpers” came to the rescue of the refugees, providing sanctuary in Arizona and beyond. In doing so, they found themselves in conflict with neighbors and parishioners and formed communities of support to protect political refugees not only from some foreign despots, but from representatives of the U.S. government, particularly the Office of Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1984, a judge in the Tucson Sanctuary Trial found eleven people guilty of breaking the law; in part because of the trial’s visibility and public support for what the defendants had done, they were given suspended sentences. The sanctuary movement grew, and continues in the 1990s.

In resisting their government and in their arguments before the court in the 1984 trial, members said they acted within a tradition as old as the U.S. itself. As Jim Corbett argued, “From the Declaration of Independence to the trials at Nuremberg, our country has recognized that good citizenship requires that we disobey laws or officials whenever they mandate the violation of human rights. A government that commits crimes against humanity forfeits its claim to legitimacy.”

In building a community of support for the refugees and in reawakening their churches, the movement has helped to bring a version of the Latin American base communities to the U.S. and to give it indigenous roots. Vicki Kemper, commenting on the 1984 trial, suggested how this community building is accomplished, often by church workers who don’t necessarily know one another. The diverse group in Tucson, “with different theologies, ministries, and politics,” came together and stayed together “because of their common commitment to Central American refugees, a commitment so strong that it overshadowed all their differences.”

The Sanctuary Movement has helped those involved, as it did Jim Corbett, to discover “the church in its broadest sense” as a community “ready to respond to violations of human rights.” By embodying what he calls “faith as trust” rather than “faith as belief,” the movement helped to inform an even larger effort, since 1989, to close the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where the U.S. trains military personnel, sometimes in torture, from throughout Latin America.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by members of the Sanctuary Movement
  • Corbett, Jim. The Sanctuary Church. Philadelphia: Pendle Hill, 1986.
  • Interviews: John Fife, Peggy Hutchison, Philip Willis Conger, Darlene Nicgorski, Jim Corbett, Sojoumers. XV, 7 (July 1986), 20-30.
Selected material about the Sanctuary Movement
  • Davidson, Miriam. Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988.
  • Golden, Renny, and Michael McConnell. Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara.  The Beans Trees.  New York: Harper Collins, 1988.
  • Sanctuary: A Resource Guide for Understanding and Participating in the Central American Refugees’ Struggle. Ed. Gary MacEoin. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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