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The New Sanctuary Movement Fights Against U.S. Oppression

Updated on March 7, 2017

The New Sanctuary Movement Fights U.S. Oppression

In El Salvador, the military killed over 10,000 people by 1980, including the famous Archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. churchwomen. They were killed in a highly structured and effective dirty war in which the Americans were closely involved. The extent of CIA involvement in the death of Romero will never be known.

What is known is that American trained “death squads” did much of the killing. This was done under Ronald Reagan who, today, is considered a saint by many.

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

At its peak, Sanctuary involved over 500 congregations in the United States that declared themselves official “sanctuaries.”

I am proud to say that I was arrested opposing U.S. involvement in mass murder in El Salvador. More importantly, perhaps, as chair of the social concerns committee of a Unitarian Church in the Los Angeles area, I worked with the minister to get the congregation to give sanctuary to a couple from El Salvador.

Henry Zalada and his wife were in California. If they had been found by U.S. government agents and sent back to El Salvador they would have been tortured and killed because Henry was a critic of the government in his native land. We gave them shelter at our church. Eventually they would find a permanent residence and become American citizens.

In defying the U.S. government we at the Unitarian church were aware that individually we were subject to fines of $2,000 and up to 5 years in jail. Why did we risk these penalities?

What is the basis for the motivation of the 1980’s sanctuary movement? For most, it was based on the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam where God gives preferential treatment to the poor and the oppressed. The Bible is full of examples where shelter is given by God’s people to the oppressed, the “least amongst us.” In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus instructs his followers to welcome the stranger and he says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” People are not “illegals,” which objectifies them. Rather they are God’s beloved children.

Today, in the news, is the following story that has become a topic of national conversation: “PHOENIX, Feb 9 (Reuters) - An Arizona mother of two who lived in the United States for more than 20 years was deported to Mexico on Thursday, becoming one of the first to be swept up in the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigrants in the United States, her attorney and family said.”

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, 36, was taken to Nogales, Mexico, on Thursday morning by U.S. immigration staff, her attorney Ray Ybarra-Maldonado told a news conference. Both of her American-born children and her husband remained in the United States.

What is missing in the news is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year, under President Obama, carried out more than 72,000 deportations of parents who said they had U.S.-born children, according to reports to Congress.

Donald Trump, through an executive order, has given much more power to ICE to deport undocumented immigrants. Rayos is perhaps the first victim of ICE activities under Trump.

Now the “New Sanctuary Movement” is in full swing. What is somewhat different from the movement 30 years ago is the emphasis on family values. That term from the religious right tended to mean a heterosexual coupling with children, often connected to anti-abortion and anti-gay memes. Today, the term has been appropriated by the sanctuary movement to mean a family’s connection with the divine family, expanding the circle of religious concern to religious families. But the themes we used in the 1980’s are still powerful.

It is difficult to see how so-called Christians like Obama and Trump could sanction tearing families apart and thereby cause great anguish and suffering. The hatred of immigrants and refugees displayed by many Trump voters is at odds with God’s dream of love for all humanity. Trump’s raging at Mexican undocumented people wounds the human heart.

Back in the day, I was in jail with Chris Kristofferson and Jackson Brown fighting for immigrant’s rights. Amazingly, Kristofferson kept up with Browne as they rapped together. Maybe I’ll see them there again. Want to join us?

You might start by contacting the Society of Friends (Quakers) or the Roman Catholic Church in your area. Often the United Church of Christ, The Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches are involved. Your local Jewish temple or Muslim Mosque might be involved in the Sanctuary Movement.


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