The Sanctuary Movement Hidden Histories

by Jack R. Johnson                                                                  Graphic Illustration Doug Dobey

Recently, Honduran-born Abbie Arevalo-Herrera became the first person to be publicly granted sanctuary by a religious denomination in Virginia this week. On Wednesday, June 20th, she was formally granted sanctuary at the First Unitarian Universalist Church near Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia.

But what does ‘granting sanctuary’ actually mean? The history of the sanctuary movement, or the ability to ‘take sanctuary’ is older than Jerusalem. If you are like Mr. Sessions and enjoy dropping bible quotes, you might start with Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong… [he] shall be as native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

You can trace a path from there to the sanctuary movement that was effectively established for slaves fleeing that ‘curious institution’ along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.

After that, there was sanctuary offered to the Vietnam War conscientious objectors and resistors by the peace churches such as the Quakers, and then finally, the contemporary version of the ‘sanctuary movement’ starting in the early 1980s.

Then, as today, thousands of Central Americans were fleeing horrific conditions in their homelands and seeking refuge in the United States. Then, as today, many of those conditions were the result of our foreign policy choices and actions.

In 1980, the El Salvadoran civil war was raging and the U.S. was seeking to defeat a collection of leftist militants that wanted land reform for the poverty stricken campesinos. The Reagan administration supported the oligarchs, represented by some of the most ruthless authoritarian governments in the region. In 1980, the Salvadoran government imposed martial law on its citizens. This marked the beginning of mass killings by so called ‘death squads.’ Many times these death squads were quasi military networks, funded by far right oligarchs in the region or the government itself, often assisted by military supplies from the U.S., or dark money from the CIA.  Human rights sources estimate that 18,000 to 20,000 people were killed or “disappeared” in 1980 alone. Thousands of Salvadorans fled the violence, coming north through Mexico to the United States.

In the fall of 1981, the killing expanded to Guatemala, which led to a similar exodus. Thousands of refugees fled for their safety, but in trying to gloss the severity of the conflict, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees. Instead, the Reagan administration said they were ‘economic’ refugees, denying them legal entry to the United States. Death squads awaited them at the airports on their return home and many were murdered as they stepped off the planes. In response, the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s was born.

According to the Reverend Noel Andersen, National Grassroots Coordinator of the Church World Service, the churches involved in the Sanctuary Movement reminded the United States government that it was not following its own asylum and refugee laws. Thousands of stories from refugees were highlighted through the media with speaking tours that “raised the consciousness of the unjust nature of these civil wars and questioned the U.S. deportation policies that would have sent asylum seekers back to their death.”

Today, although there is no formal civil war, there are still horrific conditions, caused in many cases by the history of our interventions in Central America.

And again, the U.S. Sanctuary Movement is likewise responding.

Nearly three weeks ago the US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to tighten asylum restrictions. “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” he said. That ruling is part of the “zero tolerance” policy that Sessions says was necessary to end the ‘lawlessness’ that currently exists in the immigration system.

Reverend Pupke of the First Unitarian Universalist church told Arevalo-Herrera and the press on Wednesday that her congregation and the Sanctuary Movement will stand by her family to fight what she called “immoral” and “inhumane” immigration laws.

This is what it means to offer sanctuary.

“We will not allow them to destroy families,” Reverend Pupke said, defiantly. “We are going to kick up a fuss that Mr. Sessions cannot ignore.”

Given the current political climate, Abbie and her family may be there for quite some time. But the church members and local community organizations seem willing to wait. As long as it takes.

Others refugees are welcome in sanctuary, Reverend Pupke added, “We are privileged as a congregation to open our doors to the stranger. To bear witness. To welcome. To practice radical hospitality, because what it says in Jewish scriptures ‘you yourself were once strangers in this land.’”

It was almost as though she were reading the verse off the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

It’s good that someone still does.


About CharlesM 294 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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