ON MAY 1, 1986, a federal jury found nine church activists guilty of conspiracy to violate U.S. immigration laws for assisting Central American refugees. At our sentencing, I faced a possible 25-year prison sentence.
The “sanctuary trial” drew national attention; millions of Americans learned about the plight of Central American refugees and the church-led sanctuary movement to aid them. After a seven-month trial and our conviction, the judge suspended our sentence and gave us five years of probation.
In the 1980s, our case hinged on the fact that we knew that those arriving over the southern border were refugees from brutal wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. I had worked in Guatemala and in Guatemalan camps in southern Mexican. We placed refugees in communities of faith where people met them as real people and learned why they had fled. We defied U.S. immigration laws in order to protect life. We also challenged the Reagan administration’s support of brutal regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador.
Today, most of the non-Mexican undocumented immigrants coming over the border are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Many are unaccompanied minors or single adults with children. Many have legitimate asylum cases, but don’t have adequate legal representation.
The new sanctuary movement is addressing four key areas: First, assisting migrants when they arrive with basic needs and legal help. Diocesan Migrant Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas, is the largest provider of “Know Your Rights” information to refugees, particularly those staying in community-run hospitality houses along the border. Without the assistance of volunteers, usually church-affiliated, migrants would be on their own—or worse, detained in for-profit prisons.