Congregations sheltered over 500,000 refugees and they’re preparing to do it again.
When it comes to immigration, President Trump hit the ground running: During his first week in office, Trump put the screws on sanctuary cities, threatening to revoke federal funding unless jurisdictions complied with federal immigration agencies. Some cities took Trump at his word?—?Mayor Carlos Gimenez was the first to cave, relinquishing Miami’s unofficial title as a sanctuary city.
While some political leaders are prepared to capitulate to Trump, religious communities are gearing up for a battle.
Rev. Noel Andersen is a minister with New York-based Church World Service, which, in tandem with the National Council of Churches, announced a grassroots initiative aimed at supporting refugees. The churches involved represent 30 million Americans and 37 denominations.
At last count, “800 congregations have stepped up to provide relief,” to immigrants, Andersen told the Chicago Tribune in February.
The congregations’ commitment to migrants has a precedent?—?and a fairly recent one, at that. During the 1980s, congregations sheltered 500,000 refugees fleeing US-backed civil war in Central America.
Proxy wars create refugees
The Cuban Revolution began in 1953, but the rebellion’s implications far outlasted the six-year struggle. By the time Fidel Castro and his allies ousted Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, the relationship between Cuba and the United States was forever changed.
The United States responded to Cuba’s foray into communism by increasing support to anti-communist regimes in Central America. Between the Carter and Reagan administrations, the US sent hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of military aid and weapons to right-wing dictators in Guatemala and El Salvador.
These US-backed armies proceeded to terrorize civilians with torture, rape, kidnapping and death squads that massacred thousands: A UN report states that 200,000 Guatemalan citizens died during the course of the decade-long war; in El Salvador, 75,000 lives were lost.
These proxy wars created a refugee crisis: Migrants streamed into the United States, looking for shelter from their war-torn countries. They were met with blatant hypocrisy: While the US was happy to welcome refugees fleeing violence in Nicaragua, the government uniformly turned their back on those seeking asylum from Guatemala and El Salvador.
Federal agencies were loath to grant safe haven to these refugees because acknowledging the violence in those countries meant admitting that US allies were abusing human rights. This meant that the US could no longer continue funding these war efforts.
The sanctuary movement begins
In response to the growing immigrant crisis and continued government inaction, religious congregations across the country announced that they would act as sanctuaries for refugees facing deportation.
More than 500 congregations in the States participated, hosting refugees and moving them around North America in an organized network reminiscent of the Underground Railroad. In fact, the sanctuary movement drew inspiration from the abolitionist and civil rights movements, as well as from churches that sheltered Jews during World War II.
These religious communities provided migrants with shelter and legal aid and fostered relationships with sister communities in Central America. US congregants would often travel to Central America to bear witness to the devastation and aid in social justice projects.
Central Americans were not passive bystanders during the sanctuary movement. Exiled revolutionaries who fled their countries back in the 70s were some of the first to draw attention to the crisis. These activists marched, picketed and solicited help from likeminded US allies. They worked to form mutual aid organizations like the Central American Resource Center and El Rescate, which protect refugees from deportation.
Creating lasting change
The battle between the federal agencies that sought to deport these refugees and the congregations that protected them came to a head in the mid-80s when Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) infiltrated the movement. The 10-month undercover operation involved equipping informants with body microphones and sending them to record Bible classes and other church activities.
In 1985, a federal grand jury indicted 11 activists, including two priests and a nun, on charges of conspiracy. That same year, attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit against the INS, asking them to stop discriminating against refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador. American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh was settled in 1991 and allowed rejected applicants to request new asylum hearings.
The religious communities that provided sanctuary to refugees in the 1980s believe in the power of the movement. They point to the change it created: Many of the Central American refugees who were discriminated against ended up achieving legal status. The protests and marches opposing US involvement in proxy wars led to peace negotiations. The relationships fostered between activists in Central America and the US still exist to this day.
These religious communities know what’s at stake, and when the time comes, they are ready to rise to the occasion.