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.
Due to a sudden wave of ICE raids and deportations of asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America, the White House has faced anger from numerous Democrats in Congress, who drafted a letter denouncing the raids. This new refugee plan, which sets up screening facilities in Central America, aims to reduce human smuggling as well to slow the flow of undocumented immigration.
On the day Sam and Elida we to be deported, I arrived at the airport, with the entire Mejia family, and was witness to one of the most intensely sad events I’ve ever seen: a mother and father saying goodbye to their children, not knowing when they would see them again. As I drove home from the airport that night, I thought to myself, if every politician, faith-leader, and citizen in the U.S. could have met the Mejia family, and then seen the family ripped apart, the U.S. would not be deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year. The raids that are descending on immigrant communities right now, targeting Central American families who recently crossed the border escaping extreme violence, would most likely not be happening. The de-humanizing term ‘illegal alien’ would not proliferate across our airwaves.
Central America needs help expanding education opportunities, building child welfare systems, and sheltering victims of violence and witnesses to crime. But none of these reforms can be sustained unless Central American governments also work to eradicate corruption and reform their judicial systems.
As Romero said during a time of similar urgency, “On this point there is no possible neutrality. We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death. … We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.”
Most Americans say the waves of children crossing into the United States from Central America are refugees fleeing danger at home. And they say the United States should support these children while reviewing their cases, not deport them immediately.
Democrats (80 percent), independents (69 percent), and Republicans (57 percent) favor offering support to unaccompanied children while a process to review their cases gets underway.
Most major religious groups say the same, including white evangelical Protestants (56 percent), white mainline Protestants (67 percent), minority Protestants (74 percent), Catholics (75 percent), and the religiously unaffiliated (75 percent).
(The survey sample of 1,026 adults was not large enough to capture the views of smaller religious groups, such as Jews, Muslims, or Mormons).
“It makes a difference that we are talking about children facing violence and harm,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “The value of keeping families together cuts across all party lines.”
During the Central American wars of the 1980s, nearly 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. The bloodiest period came during the presidential term of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, when entire villages were burned and civilians, primarily indigenous people, were massacred.
Rios Montt was a graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas and received millions of dollars in military aid from the U.S. He was also an evangelical/Pentecostal minister and a darling of the Religious Right.