The Sanctuary Movement, which was started 30 years ago in southern Arizona to help a group of Central American immigrants, continues fighting for the dignity of families separated by immigration.
“It was incredible how a church in a Tucson neighborhood ... set the standard by raising its voice,” the Rev. John Fife, retired pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church and one of the movement’s founders, told Efe.
The Sanctuary Movement was started on March 24, 1982, when a group of members of the Southside Presbyterian church announced to the U.S. government that they were ready to violate the immigration laws by converting their church into a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing death squads in their strife-torn homelands.
Those refugees were part of a group of 26 undocumented Salvadoran immigrants who were abandoned by a smuggler while trying to cross the Arizona border in July 1980.
Half the group died from the intense desert heat before they were found by the Border Patrol.
The 13 survivors were processed and because they were undocumented their deportation procedures were immediately begun.
Fife said that this action attracted the attention of several churches in Phoenix and Tucson who joined forces to provide aid to the refugees.
The movement grew until 500 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations in 17 cities were participating.
The group of volunteers helped immigrants once they crossed the border, transporting them to Southside Presbyterian in Tucson or to the homes of certain volunteers who offered them not only lodging and food but also legal assistance so that they could file asylum petitions in the United States.
“It can’t be said with certainty how many people the movement helped, but I can say that I represented at least 3,000 cases in the courts,” Margo Cowan, an attorney and member of the Sanctuary Movement, told Efe.
In 1991, an agreement was reached with the federal government in a lawsuit filed in 1985 by churches and several organizations including the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild arguing that the U.S. government violated the law by denying political asylum to Salvadorans and Guatemalans who had fled political persecution.
Thanks to this agreement, hundreds of Central Americans could reopen their asylum cases and receive work permits.
“The Sanctuary Movement changed my life and that of my family,” said Patty Barcelo, a Guatemalan refugee with the members of Southside Presbyterian during the 30th anniversary celebration on Sunday.
She recounted how - together with her father, mother, grandmother and siblings - she crossed the Arizona border on Dec. 7, 1986.
“My father, who was a workers’ leader, was kidnapped for three months, was tortured and when they let him go was when we decided to leave,” Barcelo said.
“You all gave my family a second chance and me the opportunity to have my own family,” Barcelo said.
Cowan, who continues working in the fight for undocumented immigrants’ rights, said that the situation on the border has not changed in the past 30 years.
“This movement remains alive,” she said, “but the saddest thing is that we’re continuing to fight. The story of the undocumented immigrant continues to repeat over and over again. We see families separated, people who disappear and people who die in their attempt to cross the border.”