Sanctuary movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Sanctuary movement was part of a broader antiwar movement against President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America.

The year 1980 marked the beginning of public controversy over U.S. policy in Central America, when national refugee policy was being tested by the civil wars engulfing Central America. During the last months of the Carter administration, the U.S. Congress passed the [a]Refugee Act of 1980Refugee Act of 1980, which was intended to expand eligibility for Asylum, political;Central American immigrantspolitical asylum in the United States. The 1980 law brought the United States into line with the United Nations’ 1951 protocol relating to the status of refugees. Previous U.S. law had dealt only with refugees from communism. The new law classified refugees as persons with a “well-founded fear of persecution.”Sanctuary movementImmigrant aid organizations;Sanctuary movementReagan, Ronald[p]Reagan, Ronald;and Sanctuary movement[Sanctuary movement]Sanctuary movementImmigrant aid organizations;Sanctuary movement[cat]ILLEGALIMMIGRATION;Sanctuary movement[cat]PHILANTHROPY;Sanctuary movement[cat]ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS AND MOVEMENTS;Sanctuary movement[cat]RELIGION;Sanctuary movementReagan, Ronald[p]Reagan, Ronald;and Sanctuary movement[Sanctuary movement]Salvadoran immigrants;refugees

The fact that the Refugee Act was passed at the same time Central Americans were fleeing civil wars set the stage for a decades-long controversy that ultimately involved thousands of Americans. On one side of the controversy were Immigration lawyersimmigration lawyers, religious activists, and liberal members of Congress and the public. On the other side were the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the U.S. Departments of Justice and State. Members of the first side sought to protect the lives of the fleeing refugees, while representatives of the federal government agencies claimed to be focused on national security.

The religious congregations that became known as the Arizona;Sanctuary movementSanctuary movement began in Arizona in 1980, when Presbyterian and Quaker groups began aiding refugees from Salvadoran immigrants;refugeesEl Salvador and Guatemalan immigrants;refugeesGuatemala. The movement was motivated in its effort by the fact that the military regimes the Reagan administration supported in Central America were wantonly assassinating religious workers. American priests and nuns were also assassinated in El Salvador and Guatemala. With the assassination of Archbishop Romero, OscarOscar Romero by elements of the Salvadoran military in March, 1980, the movement went into high gear.

Eventually, more than one thousand Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations supported the movement. A modern-day “underground railroad” was assembled with the aid of supporters in Mexico who helped Central American refugees reach the safety of Sanctuary sites in the United States. While the Reagan administration attempted to prosecute some of those involved in the movement, the accompanying publicity of trials in Texas and Arizona ultimately resulted in the indictment of Reagan’s war in Central America.Sanctuary movementImmigrant aid organizations;Sanctuary movement

Further Reading
  • Bau, Ignatius. This Ground Is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1985.
  • Golden, Renny, and Michael McConell. Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986.
  • Gonzales, Raymond J. “Secret Cable: The Roman Catholic Church as a Factor in Guatemalan Politics.” In A Lifetime of Dissent. New York: Xlibris, 2006.

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