In the sweltering summer of 1980, a group of dozens of Salvadorans trekked through the Sonoran desert, the gruesome last leg of their journey of fleeing the atrocities of their home country with hopes of finding legal protection in the United States. The Sonoran desert had been known to claim the lives of migrants, scattering the landscape with corpses and unfinished stories of desperation. This particular group of migrants, with such tragedy and torture behind them, pushed forward in the hot July heat. However, without food and water and unoriented to the landscape or direction in which they should go, the harsh desert claimed the lives of 13 within the group. Those who were found alive, suffering intense sun exposure and dehydration, were transferred to a hospital in Tucson.
Haunted by the compounded trauma of fleeing their country and barely making it out of the Sonoran Desert alive, religious leaders were called to provide the survivors with pastoral care. Those who were called included Reverend John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Sitting with them through their pain, Rev. Fife listened to their stories, the trauma they endured, the atrocities they had witnessed, and the resiliency they had developed. However, he listened to far more stories beyond the ones of these Salvadoran survivors, all of which had paralleling themes of widespread violence, disappearances, war, and massacres carried out by the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador against their own people.
Atrocities in Guatemala & El Salvador
Civil War erupted in El Salvador in 1980 with the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated from the pulpit while preaching to his congregation in the capital city of San Salvador. His death occurred just days after publicly aligning himself with the poor and vulnerable who were being repressed by the Salvadoran government. On the other side of the border, a Civil War was ravaging Guatemala, the nation on the brink of the most brutal massacres of their 36-year-long armed struggle. Both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan dictatorships were receiving overwhelming support from the US government, which continued throughout the rest of the 80s. US political interests took priority over the value of human life which can be seen when evaluating the acceptance rates of Guatemalan and Salvadoran asylum applications, which were 1.8% and 2.6% respectively.
Awareness of such tragedies in Guatemala and El Salvador grew within faith communities in Southern Arizona. Rev. Fife and his colleague, Fr. Ricardo Elfrod together launched a prayer vigil to keep these stories at the forefront of the minds and hearts of their congregations. What started as a prayer vigil blossomed into a full fledged volunteer force to more directly assist Central Americans fleeing brutal persecution. At that time, they partnered with prominent immigrant lawyers to equip their congregations to be political activists and volunteers. As a group of pastors, lawyers, and church members of varying professions, they would rent buses, travel to the detention center in California, and assist Central American refugees in filling out their asylum applications. These applications detailed the abuses and torture, and sometimes even the killings of family members that these refugees had endured themselves or witnessed. In every effort possible to give legitimacy to these stories, Rev Fife recalls, “We would fly in doctors from Amnesty International who would testify saying, ‘yes, this person has been tortured. And then they would deport them the next day.”
Time and time again, the US government heard intensely brutal accounts of the persecution supported by overwhelming evidence, yet continued to deport these asylum seekers back to the exact context from which they had fled. In doing so, the US government was blatantly violating the recently passed 1980 Refugee Act, which obligated the US to protect refugees from persecution on the grounds laid out in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. However, as the US carried out inhumane deportations, the volunteers redirected their efforts to evading the legal system all together. That is when they began offering shelter and refuge to refugees who would undoubtedly be denied asylum. Rev. Fife states, “we didn’t check anyone’s documents as a church before, so we weren’t going to start then!” However, the Federal Government found such an act unlawful, and threatened to indict the pastors and priests who were protecting these refugees.
“They threatened to indict us,” says Rev. Fife, “but we knew we couldn’t quit because there were so many lives on the line on that border.” He remembers in the fall of 1981, sitting with his colleagues as they brainstormed strategic ways to move forward. That is when they decided to publicly declare their churches as sanctuaries for refugees, and the first church to do so was Rev. Fife’s congregation of Southside Presbyterian. On March 24th, 1981, the one year anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s assassination, Southside Presbyterian Church received a Salvadoran couple and publicly recognized itself as a Sanctuary. In this act, they took a political-religious stance to both the atrocities occurring in Central America, and the subsequent inhumanity of the US government towards these populations.
Declaring of Sanctuary
As other congregations followed suit and publicly declared themselves sanctuaries, they began referring to the “civildisobedience” that they were taking part in. Rev. Fife remembers being called by a lawyer who on the other end of the line exclaimed, “You are doing more harm to human rights and refugee law than anyone else I know!” He continued to explain, “You are not doing civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is publicly violating a bad law, and assuming the consequences, in order to change an unjust law. We don’t want to change US refugee Law. It conforms to the international standards. The problem is that the government is violating our own refugee law. The government is doing civil disobedience!” Rev. Fife recalls asking the lawyer ‘well what do we call it then?’ The lawyer responded, ‘I don’t know. Make it up!’ And, that was how the term ‘civil initiative’ entered the conversation to distinguish the actions and sentiments of Sanctuary Movement from civil disobedience.
As the Sanctuary Movement gained momentum within Tucson, this notion of civil initiative became more recognized and defined. There was a clear recognition of the US government’s violation of human rights and international law as well as a violation of their own 1980 Refugee Act. In the face of such failure, these bold and grounded communities of faith recognized their own obligation as a civil society to call out the government as being the one who was violating the law. A complementary aspect of this public condemnation was lifting up the testimonies of refugees and affirming the injustices that they faced not only in their home country, but also in a country that had vowed to receive and protect them. Rev. Fife states, “The genius was not that we provided sanctuary, it was that their voice was heard that would otherwise have never been heard. We provided a platform…All of Tucson learned those stories because the church connected them to outlets.” In doing so, the refugees naturally fell into an organizing role, using the platforms, sources, and audiences that were provided to them. In that way, the Sanctuary Movement grew and extended into secular spaces, city governments, educational institutions, and beyond. “I remember thinking, ‘you stole our word and concept of sanctuary but y’all go!” Rev. Fife recalls with a hint of humor. The Sanctuary Movement grew into a network of more than 1,000 faith-based and secular entities.
Paralleling Motives & Need for Civil Society to Step Up
Astounding parallels exist between then and now in which U.S. civil society needed and needs to step in and step up in response to the US’s blatant disregard and violation of human rights and of the laws and guarantees found in the 1980 Refugee Act. MPP, which deceivingly stands for Migration Protection Protocol but is often referred to as “Remain in Mexico,” was implemented last year along the US-Mexico border, forcing asylum seekers to wait for their court dates in border towns in Mexico, living day in and day out evading violence, cartels, kidnappings, drug and human trafficking all on top of economic precariousness and separation from family. According to Human Rights First, “MPP works in tandem with other illegal administration policies…to ban, block, and terrify refugees from seeking protection in the United States. The forced return policy violates legal prohibitions in U.S. law and international obligations on returning people seeking U.S. protection to persecution and torture, and blatantly flouts the asylum laws and due process protections Congress adopted for refugees seeking protection at the border.”
The migrants we serve at KBI give voice and face to the inhumane realities of the MPP program. When speaking with a migrant, a single mother who fled Honduras with her daughter said that she recalls how she felt when agents told her they were sending her back to Mexico under MPP: “It was sad because we had such hope…and this program brought an end to our hopes and desires. It took us to a state of fear.”
It is precisely because of the inhumanity of MPP, among other policies enacted by the Trump Administration, and of these corresponding testimonies that the Save Asylum coalition came together. The coalition consists of civil society groups spanning secular and religious spheres, bringing together Sanctuary Movement veterans, asylum seekers at KBI, faith-based organizations, and advocacy groups to create a binational movement rooted in the concept of civil initiative.
The #SaveAsylum Coalition
As a coalition, we condemn the US government for its unlawfulness and we validate and lift up the testimonies of asylum seekers in Nogales, Sonora who arrive fleeing similar violence and torture that asylum seekers of the 80s were escaping. Just as migrants stepped into a natural role of organizing and awareness-raising when given the platform in the Sanctuary Movement, they are similarly doing so as part of the Save Asylum initiative, serving as the true inspiration of this effort. Rev. Fife states, “[Migrants] are doing what is inevitable as a response to their vulnerability and suffering, which is organizing, and KBI enables that. If they have a place they can organize, they are going to find it and use it. And that is the whole point of the Christan faith–find those who are the most vulnerable people and lift them up.”
Over the years, the Kino Border Initiative has set its advocacy priorities based on direct migrant testimonies and experiences. In its early years, the KBI focused more on Border Patrol abuses and separation of family members in the process of detention and deportation. It published two reports on this issue and Fr. Sean Carroll, S.J., the executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, testified twice before ad hoc Congressional committees. Over time, as more migrants arrived in Nogales after fleeing violence, the KBI began to focus on assisting migrants in accessing the asylum process. Currently, the migrants cannot present their request for asylum which is why the Save Asylum campaign has been initiated.
In the Save Asylum coalition, we come together with the common goal of denouncing human rights abuses and saving asylum, which are motivated by an array of political, personal, and religious stances. However, sometimes politics are personal and religion is politics. Within the Catholic faith, those three elements often converge. In 2013, Pope Francis stated: “Good Catholics meddle in politics, offering the best of themselves, so that those who govern can govern. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good.” He further elaborated on this idea of political engagement in 2015 during the World Meeting of Popular Movements and encouraged such a notion: “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”
Motivated by these concepts and our calling to “meddle,” we have aligned ourselves with the Save Asylum movement. Civil society has stepped in and asylum seekers have found their platform, which we saw last month in the Save Asylum march organized by asylum seekers themselves in downtown Nogales to accompany Elena and her 12-year-old son to the port of entry to claim asylum, a right that was denied to Elena on August 21st and has been denied to the asylum seekers stranded in Nogales and beyond. Elena showed great courage and was deeply empowered just by the ability to speak directly to U.S. Customs officials and to make her request. Doing exactly as Rev. Fife explained, these asylum seekers have taken their suffering and applied it to direct organizing. At KBI, we have witnessed a wave of activism and organizing beginning to pulsate through the KBI migrant community, instilling a newfound sense of tenacity in our work and mission, which is to be a humanizing presence on the U.S.-Mexico border and to foster bi-national solidarity through humanitarian assistance, education and research/advocacy.
Those waves are equally felt throughout the Save Asylum coalition, made up of many Sanctuary Movement veterans and activists alike, that has welcomed and affirmed the voices and participation of migrants at KBI. May you feel that energy and spirit of activism, too, and be part of creating an even bigger stage from which the voices of asylum seekers can be heard. #SaveAsylum