The Sanctuary Movement

I've been reading on the Sanctuary Movement in preparation for a class lecture and I'm so profoundly moved. Between 1980 and 1990 around 450 churches, synagogues, and organizations opened their buildings to provide refuge for people fleeing war in Latin America.

Press conference launching the Sanctuary Movement at University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California. March 29, 1982. Courtesy of

In the 1980s, thousands of individuals from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua fled to the United States, running from (US funded) war. Under the conservative Reagan administration, these individuals were not recognized as asylum seekers under the law. Thousands of individuals were detained in increasingly overpopulated detention centers where they faced horrid conditions—lack of food/water, overpopulation, lack of privacy, sexual assault, physical abuse. After detention, many were deported back to the countries they fled. In 1981 an underground movement formed, started in Tuscon, Arizona, which built connections across states/nations to provide sanctuary to those seeking asylum. Though initially secret, by 1982 these churches/synagogues spoke publicly about their work to challenge the government.

Over the next several years more and more churches, synagogues, and organizations joined this movement, openly defying laws and risking arrest on charges of harboring and smuggling "illegal aliens" and conspiracy against the government. The FBI—following tactics used against the Black Panthers, Young Lords and others in the 60s and 70s—began infiltrating sanctuary churches. By 1984 several clergy were arrested by the FBI for their involvement in the sanctuary movement, subject to fines and jail time. By 1990 relatively few individuals were provided sanctuary relative to the *thousands* who crossed the border seeking asylum, but the public outcry and active defiance of clergy—in particular—forced greater protections for Central Americans and Temporary Relief Acts.

Many people think about "religion"—especially in the 1980s—and think exclusively about conservatism and the Religious Right. And while the Religious Right was a powerful political force in the period, the history of the Sanctuary Movement challenges that single narrative. Everywhere there is conservative religious organizing, there are also people whose religious convictions push them to challenge the status quo, stand up to empire, and imagine a completely other world into existence through their actions.

To be good historians is to present complexity to single narratives. And doing so with the historical record helps us examine parallels in our present. Perhaps in doing so we can begin assessing how history rhymes, and amplify the melodies that bring about justice and freedom.

#SanctuaryMovement #LiberationTheology #ReligiousRight #CentralAmerica

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