RED 090 Robert Fisher
Ms. Browder 01 May 2012

Wiki Project ( for The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Guatemalan Refugees and the Sanctuary Movement

A million people fled from Guatemala between 1960 and 1996 when their country was torn apart by a bloody civil war between the right wing government, which was backed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (US CIA), and the country’s left wing guerillas, which were backed by communist countries including Cuba.(Julian Smith) Guatemalans who protested against government corruption were killed by the military; Guatemalans who supported the government were killed by the equally brutal rebels; and Guatemalans who didn’t take sides were often killed by both factions (Nevins). Approximately 400,000 Guatemalans asked for political asylum in the United States (James Smith). Although 100% of such requests by Cuban refugees were granted by the US government, only 3% of Guatemalan refugees were granted asylum in the 1980s. Guatemalans who were deported back to their country were often murdered (Gzesh, Press). In 1982, the Rev. Mr. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, declared that his church would defy the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and become a place of safe haven for Central American refugees. This was the birth of the Sanctuary Movement that enabled thousands of Guatemalans to escape political persecution and death (Davies, Vros).
From 1944 to 1954, Guatemala enjoyed a democratic government that enacted social reforms and modernized the economy. Unfortunately, the country’s liberal leaders were overthrown in a bloody coup supported by right wing politicians, the former ruling oligarchy, the Catholic bureaucracy, and the US CIA. They installed a corrupt government that was in turn overthrown by the military in 1960. This began 36 years of civil war. The right wing government’s forces consisted of the Army and the Guatemalan National Police. The opposition was formed by several left wing rebel groups funded by communist countries like Cuba. Fear of the brutal military dictatorship drove a million people to flee from Guatemala. Most entered the US illegally during the 1980s when the violence of the civil war was at its worst. These refugees ranged from intellectuals, politicians, and union leaders who had criticized the government to indigenous ethnic groups like the Mayan Kanjobals who were often accused without justification of sheltering the communist guerillas (Julian Smith, James Smith).
In 1968, the US had ratified the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The intent of this humanitarian law was to help refugees from communism. It was founded on the principle that people who had a “well-founded fear of persecution” should be granted political asylum. During the last months of President Carter’s administration, the US Congress passed the Refugee Act. This 1980 law expanded the eligibility for political asylum to refugees other than those escaping communist regimes. This sparked a 10-year controversy between Americans who believed that political asylum should be granted to people fleeing from right wing dictatorships and those who felt that asylum should be limited to the victims of communism. The first group of Americans was motivated by religious and humanitarian ideals and included liberal politicians, religious activists, supporters of immigrant rights, and Central American refugees. They were opposed by the Reagan administration, conservative politicians, the INS and other divisions of the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who focused on the issues of national security and fighting communism (Vros).
President Reagan took office in 1981, and he viewed the civil wars in Central America as local theaters of the Cold War against communism. His administration supported the repressive right wing regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador that were fighting Marxist rebels, but the US supported the contra rebels who were fighting the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International reported that the military and death squads of El Salvador routinely murdered and “disappeared” community leaders, union leaders, and priests and nuns suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. Government assassins even executed Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was conducting mass because he had publicly warned Salvadoran soldiers not to kill civilians. In Guatemala, the government suspected indigenous groups of supporting the guerillas. Consequently, Guatemala’s counter-insurgency measures included “disappearing” and killing indigenous people and displacing their communities (Nevins, Vros).

Because the US Congress had banned foreign assistance to governments that routinely violated the human rights of their populations, the Reagan administration had to deny that Guatemalan and Salvadoran leaders were involved in the atrocities committed against their citizens. Therefore, President Reagan’s foreign policy labeled Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees as “economic migrants” who were fleeing poverty and, thus, ineligible for political asylum. In 1984, only 3% of these refugees were granted political asylum versus 50% of Nicaraguans and 100% of Cubans. Pressure from the INS and Justice Department actively discouraged Guatemalans and Salvadorans from even applying for political asylum. Refugees arrested near the border with Mexico were sent to crowded detention centers and intimidated into “voluntarily returning” to Central America. In violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, thousands of refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador were deported without receiving legal advice first (Gzesh, Vros).
The Sanctuary Movement originated in Tucson, Arizona,with the Rev. Mr. John Fife of the Southside Presbyterian Church and Quakers Jim Corbett and Jim Dudley. They had begun providing humanitarian and legal assistance to Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees in 1980. However, after two years, none of the Central Americans they were trying to help had been received political asylum. Because they were afraid of what would happen to the refugees if they were deported to their countries of origin, Mr. Fife declared that his church would grant sanctuary to them in defiance of the INS. The two congregations in Arizona were quickly joined by congregations in California, Texas, and Illinois. By the mid 1980s, over 150 churches and synagogues joined the Sanctuary movement and smuggled undocumented Guatemalan and Salvadoran families into the US and across the country to safety. An additional 1000 congregations provided financial, medical, and legal assistance to the refugees. The Sanctuary Movement included a diverse group of religious congregations: Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, and Mennonites. Many secular groups also supported the Sanctuary Movement: liberal politicians, legal aid organizations, student organizations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (formerly Americas Watch), The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time Magazine. In fact, the entire city of Berkeley, California, declared itself a sanctuary for Central American refugees (Vros, Sanctuary Movement).
Many activists in the Sanctuary Movement justified their actions on religious and moral grounds and compared themselves to the “Underground Railroad” of the 19th century that helped runaway slaves. Others cited the Nuremburg principles of personal accountability as the legal precedent for engaging in the illegal activity of smuggling aliens into the US. Some of the activists had experience in civil disobedience gained from previous participation in the Civil Rights Movement (Vros, Sanctuary Movement).

In 1984, the Department of Justice prosecuted two members of the Sanctuary Movement that resulted in one conviction and one acquittal. In 1985, criminal prosecution was initiated against 16 US and Mexican activists in Arizona. The Arizona trial provided major publicity for the Sanctuary Movement. Some of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country volunteered their services for the accused members of the Sanctuary Movement. The defense team managed to introduce evidence regarding government atrocities committed in Guatemala and El Salvador, which caused many people to condemn the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America and misuse of the INS to support its political goals. Although all of the defendants were convicted, none of them spent any time in jail; and the Sanctuary Movement continued to attract more supporters. The Justice Department didn’t indict anymore Sanctuary Movement activists after the Arizona trials (Vros, Sanctuary Movement).
The legal services provided by the Sanctuary Movement resulted in major changes in the rights of political refugees. Volunteer attorneys and religious activists started projects to provide legal services for detained refugees. These attorneys established the new case law associated with the Refugee Act. National standards were established for the treatment of people in detention centers. The major challenges faced by the attorneys were the opinion letters from the Justice Department that denied that there were any human rights violations occurring in Guatemala and El Salvador. These letters had a great impact on immigration lawyers. However, a group of attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups filed a class action suit on behalf of refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, religious organizations, and legal services projects. This lawsuit, American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh, claimed that the US government’s denial of political asylum claims and prosecution of people who assisted refugees violated their human and constitutional rights. The settlement of this claim in 1991 during President George Bush’s administration included a statement that foreign policy considerations would have no affect on the government’s decisions regarding the granting of political asylum (Sanctuary Movement).
In 1990, the US Congress passed legislation that allowed the president to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to groups in need of a temporary safe haven. Guatemalans and Salvadorans who had illegally entered the US during the 1980s were allowed to remain in the country until their status was finally resolved in a legislative agreement. The 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act finally allowed Guatemalans and Salvadorans who were protected by the American Baptist Churches settlement to apply for permanent residence in the US. The US Sanctuary Movement saved tens of thousands of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees from deportation and possible death (Sanctuary Movement).

Works Cited

Smith, Julian. “A Human Rights Breakthrough in Guatemala. Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 2009. Web.
30 Apr 2012.

Nevins, Buddy. “Guatemalan Indian Relates Fear of War.” The Sun Sentinel. Sun Sentinel, 24 June 1986. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Smith, James. “Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees.” Migration Information. Migration Policy Institute,
Apr 2006. Web. 21 Apr 2012.

Gzesh, Susan. “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era.” Migration Information. Migration Policy Institute,
Apr 2006. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Press, Robert. “Is It Safe for Guatemalan Refugees to Return Home?” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor,
30 May 1985. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Davies, Miriam. “Quakers in the Sanctuary Movement.” Quakers in the World. Quakers in the World, 04 Mar 2012. Web.
30 Apr 2012.

Vros, Alex. “Sanctuary Movement Turns 30.” Fox News Latino. Fox News, 27 Mar 2012. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

“Sanctuary Movement.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., 20 Feb 2012. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Outline and Research (Not Part of Essay)
1. Introductory Paragraph
a. Background information
b. Introduction of Sanctuary Movement
2. Civil War in Guatemala
a. Cause of war
b. Exodus of political refugees
3. US Government Response
a. Legal basis for political asylum
b. Reagan administration
c. Economic refugees
4. Sanctuary Movement
a. Fife’s announcement
b. Prosecution by Justice Department
c. Changes in the law
5. Temporary Protected Status

A Human Rights Breakthrough in Guatemala
A chance discovery of police archives may reveal the fate of tens of thousands of people who disappeared in Guatemala's civil war
By Julian Smith, Smithsonian magazine, October 2009
Rusting cars are piled outside the gray building in a run-down section of Guatemala City. Inside, naked light bulbs reveal bare cinder-block walls, stained concrete floors, desks and filing cabinets. Above all there is the musty odor of decaying paper. Rooms brim with head-high heaps of papers, some bundled with plastic string, others mixed with books, photographs, videotapes and computer disks—all told, nearly five linear miles of documents.
This is the archive of the former Guatemalan National Police, implicated in the kidnapping, torture and murder of tens of thousands of people during the country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. For years human rights advocates and others have sought to hold police and government officials responsible for the atrocities, but very few perpetrators have been brought to trial because of a lack of hard evidence and a weak judicial system. Then, in July 2005, an explosion near the police compound prompted officials to inspect surrounding buildings looking for unexploded bombs left from the war. While investigating an abandoned munitions depot, they found it stuffed with police records.
Human rights investigators suspected that incriminating evidence was scattered throughout the piles, which included such minutiae as parking tickets and pay stubs. Some documents were stored in cabinets labeled "assassins," "disappeared" and "special cases." But searching the estimated 80 million pages of documents one by one would take at least 15 years, experts said, and virtually no one in Guatemala was equipped to take on the task of sizing up what the trove actually held.
That's when investigators asked Benetech for help. Founded in 2000 in Palo Alto, California, with the slogan "Technology Serving Humanity," the nonprofit organization has developed database software and statistical analysis techniques that have assisted activists from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone. According to Patrick Ball, the organization's chief scientist and director of its human rights program, the Guatemalan archives presented a unique challenge that was "longer-term, more scientifically complex and more politically sensitive" than anything the organization had done before.
From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala's civil war pitted left-wing guerrilla groups supported by Communist countries, including Cuba, against a succession of conservative governments backed by the United States. A 1999 report by the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification—whose mandate was to investigate the numerous human rights violations perpetrated by both sides—estimated that 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. In rural areas, the military fought insurgents and indigenous Mayan communities who sometimes harbored them. In the cities, the National Police targeted academics and activists for kidnapping, torture and execution.
Although the army and the National Police were two separate entities, the distinction was largely superficial. Many police officers were former soldiers. One police official told the Commission for Historical Clarification that the National Police took orders from military intelligence and had a reputation for being "dirtier" than the army. The National Police was disbanded as a condition of the 1996 Guatemalan peace accords and replaced with the National Civilian Police.
The archive building is a very different place depending on which door one enters. One leads to the rooms filled with musty paper. Another opens on to the hum of fans and the clack of keyboards from workrooms and offices. Young workers in matching tan coats stride down brightly lit hallways, where row after row of metal shelves hold hundreds of neatly labeled file boxes.
Benetech's first task was to get a sense of what the archive held. Guided by randomized computer instructions, workers withdrew sample documents: Take a paper from such and such a room, that stack, so many inches or feet deep. The more samples that are collected, the more accurately the researchers can estimate what the entire archive holds. Following this method, the investigators avoid charges from critics that they are selecting only incriminating documents.
In one room, three women in hairnets, gloves and painters' breathing masks are bent over a table. One brushes a typewritten document yellowed with age. After each document is cleaned, it is digitally scanned and filed. The Guatemalan researchers place all the documents into storage. Some documents—the ones randomly selected by Benetech—will be entered into a database called Martus, from the Greek word for "witness." Martus is offered free by Benetech online to human rights groups, and since 2003 more than 1,000 people from more than 60 countries have downloaded it from the group's Web site ( To safeguard the information stored in Martus, the database is encrypted and backed up onto secure computer servers maintained by partner groups worldwide.
Although the army and the National Police were two separate entities, the distinction was largely superficial. Many police officers were former soldiers. One police official told the Commission for Historical Clarification that the National Police took orders from military intelligence and had a reputation for being "dirtier" than the army. The National Police was disbanded as a condition of the 1996 Guatemalan peace accords and replaced with the National Civilian Police.
The archive building is a very different place depending on which door one enters. One leads to the rooms filled with musty paper. Another opens on to the hum of fans and the clack of keyboards from workrooms and offices. Young workers in matching tan coats stride down brightly lit hallways, where row after row of metal shelves hold hundreds of neatly labeled file boxes.
Benetech's first task was to get a sense of what the archive held. Guided by randomized computer instructions, workers withdrew sample documents: Take a paper from such and such a room, that stack, so many inches or feet deep. The more samples that are collected, the more accurately the researchers can estimate what the entire archive holds. Following this method, the investigators avoid charges from critics that they are selecting only incriminating documents.
In one room, three women in hairnets, gloves and painters' breathing masks are bent over a table. One brushes a typewritten document yellowed with age. After each document is cleaned, it is digitally scanned and filed. The Guatemalan researchers place all the documents into storage. Some documents—the ones randomly selected by Benetech—will be entered into a database called Martus, from the Greek word for "witness." Martus is offered free by Benetech online to human rights groups, and since 2003 more than 1,000 people from more than 60 countries have downloaded it from the group's Web site ( To safeguard the information stored in Martus, the database is encrypted and backed up onto secure computer servers maintained by partner groups worldwide.
Working with an annual budget of $2 million donated by European countries, researchers and technicians have digitized eight million documents from the archive, and cleaned and organized another four million. Based on the evidence collected so far, there is "no doubt that the police participated in disappearances and assassinations," says Carla Villagran, a former adviser to the Project to Recover the Historic Archives of the National Police. In some cases the information is explicit; in others, conclusions are based on what the documents don't contain. For example, a name that disappears from an official list of prisoners might mean the person was executed.
As the details of daily reports and operational orders accumulate in the Martus database, a larger picture has emerged, allowing investigators to understand how the National Police functioned as an organization. "We're asking, ‘What's going on here?'" says Ball. Did the police get their orders directly from military intelligence or senior officials within the police force? Did mid-level officials give the orders without consulting superiors? Or did individual police officers commit these acts on their own initiative?
Ball insists that Benetech's job is to "clarify history," not to dictate policy. Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom showed his support with a visit to the archive last year. Still, "in this country, it has become dangerous to remember," says Gustavo Meoño, director of the archive project. There has been at least one attempt to firebomb the archive. Not everyone is eager to dig up the recent past, especially police—some still serving on active duty—who could be implicated in crimes. But at the very least, the researchers hope to give closure to victims' relatives and survivors. "If you have an official document that proves what you've been saying is true," Villagran says, "it's more difficult for anyone to say that you're lying about what happened to you, your family and the ones you loved." Villagran's voice cracks as she tells how her husband was kidnapped and then disappeared during the war.
This past March, Sergio Morales, the Guatemalan government's human rights ombudsman, released the first official report on the police archives project, "El Derecho a Saber" ("The Right to Know"). Though many human rights watchers had expected sweeping revelations, the 262-page report mostly just described the archive. Ball was among those disappointed, though he hopes a second report currently under development will include more details.
Yet the report did cite one specific case—that of Edgar Fernando García, a student who was shot in 1984, taken to a police hospital and never heard from again. (García's widow is now a congresswoman.) Based on evidence recovered from the archive, two former members of a police unit linked to death squads were arrested, and arrest orders have been issued for two other suspects. It was an alarming precedent for those who still could be implicated: the day after the report's release, Morales' wife was kidnapped and tortured. "They are using violence to spread fear," Morales told newspapers.
The question about what to do with future findings remains open. "Prosecutions are a great way of creating moral closure—I've participated in many," says Ball. "But they aren't what will change a country." In his view, understanding how the National Police went bad and preventing it from happening again—"that's real improvement."
The work at the archive is expected to continue. Villagran hopes to have another 12 million documents digitized over the next five years. Meanwhile, the databases have been made available to Guatemalan citizens and human rights groups everywhere, says Ball. "Now it's the world's job to dig through the material and make sense of it."
Julian Smith's book Chasing the Leopard will be published in summer 2010.
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Guatemalan Indian Relates Fear Of War
June 24, 1986|By Buddy Nevins, Miami Bureau Chief
Gaspar Francisco came out of the jungle, with his strange language and his stone-age skills, looking for refuge from a bloody war.
He told tales of being caught in fighting between the Guatemalan army and the shadowy Marxist guerrillas that his fellow Indians called the people among the trees.
Francisco eventually sneaked into the United States and found shelter in Martin County picking fruit.
Now the federal government has labeled Francisco an illegal immigrant and wants to deport the Kanjobal Indian to Guatemala.
I might be killed, Francisco pleaded with a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service judge at his deportation hearing in Miami Monday.
But a federal government attorney argued that Kanjobals have failed to establish a well-founded fear of persecution.
Francisco`s is the first of 200 Kanjobal deportation cases scheduled to be heard in Miami.
The cases are complicated because these descendents of the ancient Mayans speak only Kanjobal and there is only one interpreter the INS uses in the United States.
Francisco`s testimony Monday indicated he knew little of the reasons behind the fighting.
I left because of the fighting, he testified through the interpreter.
Who was it who was fighting? he was asked by Peter Upton, a lawyer for the American Friends Service Committee, the group representing the Kanjobals.The people among the trees and the army, said Francisco.
Upton asked, Who were the people among the trees?
I don`t know where they came from. I don`t know who they were, Francisco said.
Do you know why this fighting was taking place? asked Upton.
No, said Francisco.
He told how 30 Guatemalan soldiers swept into his village of Ixcanac one Sunday morning in August 1981. They were on a search and destroy mission to find and kill guerrillas, he said.
His father and two brothers were sleeping in their one-room hut, while his mother was preparing corn for tortillas. Soldiers burst in and dragged off his father and brothers, along with eight other men from the village, he said.
The Indians were machine-gunned and hacked to pieces by the machete-wielding soldiers, he said.
Francisco was away at the time. When he heard what happened, he started to run and didn`t stop until he reached Florida, three years later.
They don`t support any political ideology. They didn`t even know why they were being killed. They just want to be left alone, said Geronimo Camposeco, a spokesman for the Kanjobal.
Howard Rose, district INS counsel, disagreed. He said Guatemala is no longer a right-wing military dictatorship but a democracy and that Francisco, and other Kanjobals, should not fear returning.
Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees
By James Smith, Inforpress Centroamericana, April 2006
Guatemala, with a population of about 14 million, has a common Central American recipe for high rates of emigration: political instability, natural disasters, and a lack of economic opportunity. The country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, caused thousands of political refugees to flee to Mexico, the United States, and Canada, though many in Mexico returned once the war was over. Migration to the United States recorded a steep rise after the 1976 earthquake and rose still further during the 1980s, remaining at a steady rate of about 40,000 per year throughout the 1990s, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Guatemala.
The 2000 US census counted 480,665 foreign born from Guatemala, but IOM data suggest that approximately one million Guatemalans now live in the United States. Although the IOM estimates that around 200,000 Guatemalan migrants living in the United States are undocumented, some civil society organizations believe the actual figure is higher. In March 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center, estimated 320,000 undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, based on results of the US Census Bureau's March 2005 Current Population Survey.
IOM also estimates that between 6,000 and 12,000 new Guatemalan migrants arrive in the United States via Mexico each year. Their remittances, which are used for a variety of short-term needs and long-term purposes, have yet to decisively reduce poverty levels.
Guatemalans who enter both Mexico and the United States illegally are subject to deportation. Each year, IOM estimates that some 60,000 Guatemalans are deported from Mexico, and an average of 2,500 are deported from the United States, including gang members who have helped gang violence flourish back at home.
Guatemala's government is concerned with the reintegration of deported migrants and its role as a transit country for migrants from Central and South America — as well as Asia, particularly India — seeking to enter Mexico and eventually the United States. Regional migration policy efforts have produced some results, yet the main concern of Guatemalans in the United States and at home is the direction of US immigration reform.
Historical Migration Trends
Guatemala's first European immigrants were the Spanish, who conquered the country's indigenous Mayan population in 1524 and ruled them for almost 300 years. Although the Spaniards' conquest was mainly the result of their technical superiority, they were helped by the fact that the Mayans were already involved in bitter infighting. European epidemics the conquistadors brought over are estimated to have reduced the indigenous population from 14 million at the arrival of the Spanish to two million in two generations.
Despite being greatly outnumbered by the Maya — historians estimate that only a few thousand Spaniards settled in Guatemala before independence — the latter were able to impose their colonial system through a reign of terror. Since Guatemala had few get-rich-quick resources, such as gold and silver, the Spanish conquest focused on forced labor of the indigenous population.
The Spanish set up a system of domination that ensured slaves worked the land and paid taxes in the form of goods. The system was structured to exploit the indigenous population without destroying it. In 1663, the Spanish king tried to abolish slavery in the colonies, but the criollo (creole) class, those of Spanish descent born in Guatemala, fought fervently to ensure that forced labor continued to be practiced well into the 20th century.
Following its independence from Spanish colonialists in 1821, the indigenous population continued to be exploited by the criollos and the mestizos (those of Spanish and indigenous blood, known in Guatemala as Ladinos), who had risen into the elite. One of the enduring legacies of the conquest was the forced appropriation of all land for the Spanish crown; indigenous Guatemalans, granted communal lands to sustain themselves, were still dependent on working Spanish land.
However, when legislation safeguarding these lands was abolished in the 19th century, criollos (from Spain, Germany, and Switzerland) and Ladinos soon moved in and set up plantations to produce export crops, thus turning the rural population into an unemployed mass of migrant farm workers.
In 1821, the Guatemalan Republic — which included the Soconusco region (now part of Southern Mexico), as well as what are now the countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica — had a mere 1.5 million inhabitants, mostly concentrated in the urban centers of the young republic. In 1823, following a brief period as part of the Mexican Empire, the republic became known as the United Provinces of Central America.
After a politically unstable period aggravated by the collapse of the world market for indigo, the region's main export to Europe, each province separated itself from the federation, beginning with Costa Rica. The federation fell apart between 1838 and 1840, when Guatemala became an independent nation.
Migration to Mexico
Guatemalans have sought employment abroad since the 19th century, when significant numbers made their way to work on the coffee plantations in Soconusco, now part of Chiapas, Mexico. Traditionally, most of those who emigrated to Mexico were male and young. Once established, their families would often join them.
From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, seasonal migration to Chiapas during the coffee harvest grew significantly — not surprising given that Mexican wages are estimated to be some 50 percent higher than those within Guatemala. In 1992, a joint study of the Ministry of Labor and IOM found that over 87,000 Guatemalan workers had legally undertaken migrant labor in Mexico during that year.
Yet the Guatemalan government has estimated that the number of undocumented migrants to Mexico may be as high as 250,000. In the mid 1990s, the Guatemalan government, under a bilateral agreement with the state government of Chiapas and with support from the International Labor Organization (ILO), established a system of identity cards for the migrant workers to encourage more of them to migrate through official channels. The Ministry of Health has also established binational programs to provide primary health care for Guatemalan migrant workers in Mexico.
Emigration During the Civil War
Modern history in Guatemala dates back to 1944, the year when long-time dictator General Jorge Ubico retired and a successor regime was overthrown by a reformist alliance of military officers, students, professionals, businessmen, and politicians.
For 10 years, Guatemala experimented with democracy, social reforms, and economic modernization. A violent coup — supported by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), right-wing politicians, the Catholic hierarchy, and the oligarchy — brought that period to an abrupt end in 1954. The ensuing political exclusion and corruption resulted in a military uprising in 1960, which marked the beginning of a long civil war between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups.
Between 1960 and 1996, when the civil war formally ended, over 400,000 Guatemalans fled their country's repressive military dictatorships and armed conflicts. Those fleeing included political, union, and student leaders, as well as intellectuals critical of the region's autocratic regimes. While the vast majority left during the 1980s, when the violence was at its peak, emigration rates actually accelerated after the war (see Table 1).
Thousands of Guatemalans sought safety in Mexico, which struggled to handle the flow; about 46,000 eventually received protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (see Mexico: Caught Between the United States and Central America).
Guatemalans' asylum applications were routinely rejected in the United States, their main destination. The politicization of the asylum process reached a peak during the Reagan years. During the 1980s, the US government denied the majority of Guatemalan asylum applications, despite the country's civil war. At the same time, Washington granted over 50 percent of applications from people fleeing countries whose governments the Reagan Administration opposed, such as Nicaragua and Cuba (see Central Americans and US Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era).
Canada, in contrast, saw the region's conflicts as the consequence of inequality and opposed military aid or any actions that might perpetuate Central America's wars. Between 1982 and 1987, Canada admitted 15,877 refugees from Central America, including Guatemalans (see Canada: A Northern Refuge for Central Americans).
Many Guatemalans who remained in the United States illegally were later able to legalize their status. The settlement from the class-action suit American Baptist Churches (ABC) v. Thornburgh in 1991 allowed them to reapply for asylum, and the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) allowed Guatemalans and Salvadorans protected under ABC to apply for permanent residence. Also, in 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which allowed undocumented aliens who had resided in the United States for a certain period of time to apply for legal permanent resident status, benefited 59,863 Guatemalans.

Table 1. Emigration Flows from Guatemala, 1960s through 2005
Time Period
Number of emigrants
Total (through 2005)
Source: International Organization for Migration, Guatemala

Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era
By Susan Gzesh, University of Chicago, April 2006
The year 1980 marked the opening of a decade of public controversy over US refugee policy unprecedented since World War II. Large-scale migration to the United States from Central America began, as hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans fled north from civil war, repression, and economic devastation. That same year, in the last months of the Carter administration, the US Congress passed the Refugee Act, a humanitarian law intended to expand eligibility for political asylum in the United States.
The Refugee Act brought US law into line with international human rights standards, specifically the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The United States had ratified the Protocol in 1968, thus becoming bound by the Convention's provisions. While the previous law recognized only refugees from Communism, the Refugee Act was modeled on the convention's non-ideological standard of a "well-founded fear of persecution."
The coincidence of the Central American exodus with the passage of the Refugee Act set the stage for a decade-long controversy that ultimately involved thousands of Americans. The protagonists in the controversy included, on one side, immigrants' rights lawyers, liberal members of Congress, religious activists, and the refugees themselves. On the other side were President Reagan and his administration, the State Department, the Department of Justice (including the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)), and conservative members of Congress. The first group invoked international human rights and humanitarian and religious principles, while the Reagan administration's arguments centered on national security and the global fight against Communism.
The public debate took place in a number of arenas and with several sets of participants. The federal courts were the venue for class-action cases contesting systemic INS violations of refugee rights, as well as for the criminal prosecution of religious humanitarians.
Unprecedented numbers of Americans became involved through their churches and synagogues, which proclaimed themselves "sanctuaries," as well as in bar association efforts to provide pro bono representation to Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Throughout the decade, in hundreds of individual immigration hearings, lawyers for asylum applicants and INS lawyers waged a low-intensity struggle over the nature of the conflict in Central America and the rights of individual Central Americans to asylum status.
In Congress, members debated the war and laws aimed at helping Central Americans rejected as refugees. The refugees themselves became a voice in the US public debate. They formed their own community assistance groups and advocacy centers, which worked with lawyers, religious groups, and the movement against United States involvement in Central America.
Cold War by Proxy and Human Rights in Central America
In El Salvador and Guatemala, civil war had been years in the making, as oligarchies supported by corrupt military leaders repressed large sectors of the rural population. In Nicaragua, the socialist revolutionary Frente Sandinista had ousted the brutal right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The civil war in El Salvador increased in intensity in early 1980. Government‑supported assassins gunned down Archbishop Oscar Romero at the altar shortly after he had publicly ordered Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing civilians. In December 1980, four US churchwomen were assassinated in El Salvador, an act of brutality that brought the violence "home" to the US public.
The administration of President Ronald Reagan, who came to power in January 1981, saw these civil wars as theaters in the Cold War. In both El Salvador and Guatemala, the United States intervened on the side of those governments, which were fighting Marxist-led popular movements. In Nicaragua, however, the United States supported the contra rebels against the socialist Sandinista government.
During much of the early 1980s, international human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch — later part of Human Rights Watch) regularly reported high levels of repression in El Salvador and Guatemala, with the vast majority of human rights violations committed by military and government-supported paramilitary forces.
In El Salvador, the military and death squads were responsible for thousands of disappearances and murders of union leaders, community leaders, and suspected guerilla sympathizers, including priests and nuns. In Guatemala, the army's counter-insurgency campaign focused on indigenous communities, resulting in thousands of disappearances, murders, and forced displacements.
The Intersection of Foreign Policy and Asylum Policy
It is estimated that between 1981 and 1990, almost one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled repression at home and made the dangerous journey across Mexico, entering the United States clandestinely. Thousands traveled undetected to major cities such as Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Chicago. However, thousands were also detained at or near the Mexico-US border.
The Reagan administration regarded policy toward Central American migrants as part of its overall strategy in the region. Congress had imposed a ban on foreign assistance to governments that committed gross violations of human rights, thus compelling the administration to deny Salvadoran and Guatemalan government complicity in atrocities. Immigration law allowed the attorney general and INS officials wide discretion regarding bond, work authorization, and conditions of detention for asylum seekers, while immigration judges received individual "opinion letters" from the State Department regarding each asylum application. Thus the administration's foreign policy strongly influenced asylum decisions for Central Americans.
Characterizing the Salvadorans and Guatemalans as "economic migrants," the Reagan administration denied that the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments had violated human rights. As a result, approval rates for Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases were under three percent in 1984. In the same year, the approval rate for Iranians was 60 percent, 40 percent for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, and 32 percent for Poles.
The Justice Department and INS actively discouraged Salvadorans and Guatemalans from applying for political asylum. Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-US border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to "voluntarily return" to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely reported human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants constituted a violation of US obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
As word of the conditions in Central America and the plight of the refugees began to come to public attention in the early 1980s, three sectors began to work in opposition to the de facto "no asylum" policy: the religious sector, attorneys, and the refugees themselves.
Although a number of Congressmen and women were influenced by the position of religious organizations, the administration thwarted their efforts. In 1983, 89 members of Congress requested that the attorney general and Department of State grant "Extended Voluntary Departure" to Salvadorans who had fled the war. The administration denied their request, stating such a grant would only serve as a "magnet" for more unauthorized Salvadorans in addition to the hundreds of thousands already present. In the late 1980s, the House of Representatives passed several bills to suspend the deportation of Salvadorans, but none passed the Senate.
The Sanctuary Movement
The network of religious congregations that became known as the Sanctuary Movement started with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Arizona. These two congregations began legal and humanitarian assistance to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in 1980.
When, after two years, none of the refugees they assisted had been granted political asylum, Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson announced — on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero — that his church would openly defy INS and become a "sanctuary" for Central Americans. The Arizona congregations were soon joined by networks of religious congregations and activists in Northern California, South Texas, and Chicago.
At the Sanctuary Movement's height in the mid 1980s, over 150 congregations openly defied the government, publicly sponsoring and supporting undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families. Another 1,000 local Christian and Jewish congregations, several major Protestant denominations, the Conservative and Reform Jewish associations, and several Catholic orders all endorsed the concept and practice of sanctuary. Sanctuary workers coordinated with activists in Mexico to smuggle Salvadorans and Guatemalans over the border and across the country. Assistance provided to refugees included bail and legal representation, as well as food, medical care, and employment.
The defense of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans marked a new use of international human rights norms by US activists. Citing the Nuremberg principles of personal accountability developed in the post-World War II Nazi tribunals, religious activists claimed a legal precedent to justify their violation of US laws against alien smuggling. Other activists claimed that their actions were justified by the religious and moral principles of the 19th-century US abolitionist movement, referring to their activities as a new "Underground Railroad." Many US religious leaders involved in the Sanctuary Movement had prior experience in the 1960s civil disobedience campaigns against racial segregation in the American South.
The Department of Justice responded by initiating criminal prosecutions against two activists in Texas in 1984, followed by a 71-count criminal conspiracy indictment against 16 US and Mexican religious activists announced in Arizona in January 1985. The Texas trials resulted in split verdicts, one conviction and one acquittal.
The Arizona trial became a major focus of organizing and publicity for the Sanctuary Movement, attracting a stellar team of volunteer criminal defense attorneys. Although the Department of Justice maintained the case was an ordinary alien-smuggling prosecution, the general counsel of INS attended sessions of the lengthy trial.
Despite the judge's order barring the defense from presenting evidence of conditions in El Salvador or Guatemala, the Sanctuary Movement managed to turn the publicity surrounding the trial into an indictment of the Reagan administration's war in Central America and its treatment of the refugees. All the Arizona defendants were convicted, but none were sentenced to jail time. After the Arizona trials, the movement continued to attract more congregations.
The Department of Justice did not bring any more criminal indictments of sanctuary activists after the Texas and Arizona cases.
The Lawyers
Along the US-Mexico border, from the Rio Grande Valley to San Diego, local lawyers and religious activists set up new legal services projects to help detained refugees. In Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Chicago, and other cities, existing nonprofit legal services projects and lawyers in private practice started representing individual refugees. Pro bono panels put together by local and national bar groups — including the National Lawyers Guild Immigration Project, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the American Bar Association — supplemented their work.
Through coordinated strategies in individual cases, these lawyers began to address detention conditions as well as develop the new case law of the Refugee Act. In California and Texas, civil rights lawyers filed class-action cases to establish basic due process rights. While some of the cases (regarding work authorization, translation assistance, and transfer of detainees between facilities) were not successful, other decisions established national standards for the treatment of detained Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers.
The refugees and their lawyers faced enormous challenges in asylum hearings, as the required opinion letters from the Department of State, which greatly influenced immigration judges, uniformly denied the existence of human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala. However, in some cases, attorneys won important victories before the Board of Immigration Appeals and in the federal circuit courts that established precedents helpful to all asylum applicants. Other efforts, such as an attempt to establish that all Salvadoran civilian young men were a social group persecuted by the government, were less successful.
Finally, a group of lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations brought a major, national class-action case on behalf of religious organizations, legal services projects, and Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees, claiming that the administration's wholesale denial of political asylum claims and prosecutions of those who assisted refugees violated their constitutional, statutory, and internationally recognized human rights.
In the case, known as American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh, the federal courts had dismissed religious organizations' claims. However, in 1991 the US District Court in San Francisco approved a settlement that allowed the reopening of denied political asylum claims and late applications by refugees who had been afraid to apply. The decision also granted class members work authorization and protection from deportation.
The settlement agreement between the plaintiffs and the government (by that time the Bush administration) included language stating that government decisions on political asylum cases would not be influenced by foreign policy considerations.
The Refugees
In many cities, Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees formed mutual assistance organizations. Projects such as Casa Guatemala, Casa El Salvador, Comite El Salvador, and others gave the community the ability to get legal advice and information about conditions back home as well as to learn about local health care and food assistance. These groups also worked with local lawyers' organizations and religious and antiwar activists, who assisted in decisions regarding class-action litigation and supported individual asylum applicants.
Over 20 years later, a number of these immigrant-led projects, including Centro Presente in Boston, Centro Romero in Chicago, and El Rescate in Los Angeles, still exist as full-service, nonprofit legal and community services centers. Many of the leaders of these efforts remain active in the immigrants' rights movement, as well as in other social justice projects in the United States, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
In 1990, after its earlier frustrations to address the Central American asylum seekers, Congress finally passed legislation allowing the president to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to certain groups in need of a temporary safe haven. The first TPS legislation contained one provision (never codified as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act) explicitly designating Salvadorans for TPS.
Through the early 1990s, Salvadoran and Guatemalans who had arrived in the 1980s were able to stay in the country under a series of discretionary measures and under the terms of the 1991 settlement in the American Baptist Churches litigation. It was not until the late 1990s that their status was finally settled in a legislative agreement with the supporters of the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans. The passage of the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act finally allowed Salvadorans and Guatemalans protected under the American Baptist Churches settlement to apply for permanent residence.
What spurred the activism of the Sanctuary Movement and Central American refugees and their lawyers was the manner in which the Reagan administration linked the fate of individual asylum seekers to its foreign policy interests. Today, the use of immigration enforcement as a "magic bullet" for national security concerns requires close examination by the US public.
Immigrant communities, members of Congress, policy analysts, religious leaders, and legal experts must determine whether the human rights of individual immigrants and asylum seekers are being trampled in a rush to create a public perception of effective security.
The development of a stronger anti-immigrant grassroots movement in certain areas of the country presents new challenges. Similarly, restrictions on access to the federal courts for review of certain immigration decisions create new obstacles for advocates to overcome. However, at the same time, immigrant-led organizations and immigrants' rights coalitions have become more sophisticated in their lobbying and public education efforts.
The proimmigrant religious sector (particularly the Catholic Church) is vocal once again, as humanitarian assistance to the undocumented may be criminalized in proposed legislation. Whether the current decade will end with even limited victories for the human rights of immigrants is as yet unknown.
Susan Gzesh is the Director of the Human Rights Program and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago. From 1977 until 1996, Ms.Gzesh practiced law representing farmworkers, urban immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, including many Central Americans. She also counseled Salvadoran organizations and activists in the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s.
Aleinikoff, T. Alexander, David A. Martin, and Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy, Fourth edition, 1998. West (note: The 2003 Fifth edition does not have the detailed account of the 1980s controversies over Central American refugees found in the Fourth edition.)
Bau, Ignatius. 1985. This Ground is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press
Coutin, Susan. 1993. The Culture of Protest. Boulder, CO: Westview Press
Golden, Renny and McConnell, Michael. 1986. Sanctuary: the New Underground Railroad. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books
Matas, David. 1989. The Sanctuary Trial. Manitoba, Canada: Legal Research Institute
Is It Safe for Guatemalan Refugees to Return Home?
By Robert M. Press, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor/30 May 1985, Indiantown, FLLast October, when a Miami TV crew landed here in a helicopter next to a school, most of the students ran out to greet them. But the Mayan Indian children from Guatemala hid in fear.
They associated helicopters with the military attacks on Indians that have occurred in their country, according to Neil Boothby, a psychologist who interviewed a number of the children.
The children and their parents who fled from Guatemala to this town -- named after Seminole Indians -- are Kanjobals, a Mayan group.
Now this shy and generally quiet people, and other undocumented Guatemalans living in the United States, find themselves in a tug of war between the US government and human rights groups.
The federal government wants to force the Kanjobals back to Guatemala, contending it is safe now because violence has been reduced. Deportations are under way.
Last year in Guatemala there were 525 violent deaths of civilian noncombatants in the country's simmering civil war. This is compared with an estimated 3,573 in 1982, according to the State Department's most recent human rights report. The report also notes ``an increase in the number of kidnappings and disappearances in 1984,'' some of them involving Indians.
The report also states: ``There is considerable evidence that harsh treatment and/or torture is inflicted upon detained persons in Guatemala.''
Human rights groups say the situation is even worse. They contend vigorously that it is still unsafe for Guatemalans to go home.
Among other things, ``suspicion would befall them just because of coming back,'' says Aryeh Neier, vice-chairman of Americas Watch, a human rights group with offices in New York and Washington. Mr. Neier recently made two trips to Guatemala.
This tug of war over the Guatemalans in the US comes as three human rights groups charge in a just-released critique that State Department reports on human rights abuses in Central America are biased in favor of nations the US supports.
The 1984 State Department reports on human rights minimize'' abuses in Guatemala and El Salvador and are grossly exaggerating abuses'' in Nicaragua, according to a joint critique by Americas Watch, Helsinki Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights.
In addition, Arthur C. Helton, of the Lawyers Committee, charges that the use of federal immigration law has become ``overpoliticized.'' The State Department should not be allowed to give advice on political asylum cases to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), he says.
Florida is a focus in these disputes. Of the 5,000 to 7,000 Kanjobals who have come to the US, some 500 to 800 settled in Florida, many of them in this town, where most of them are farm workers.
Their lawyers in Florida are gathering extensive documentation for an all-out legal fight this summer to win political asylum for those who want to stay.
Under federal immigration law, persons can be granted political asylum if they have a ``well-founded fear of persecution'' due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
In Monitor interviews here and in other south Florida towns with Kanjobals, some said they want to stay and others said they hope to return -- when it is safe.
``We haven't applied [for political asylum] because we are thinking of returning,'' said Edgar, in the livingroom of a comfortable house he rents here with several other Kanjobals. They are farm workers. (Last names are omitted because the Guatemalans interviewed still have family members in that country.)
Edgar explained the dilemma he and other Guatemalan Indians faced at home, living in territory fought over by guerrillas and the military.
``If we weren't in favor of the government, they [the government] would say we were with the guerrillas. If we weren't in favor of the guerrillas, they [the guerrillas] would say we were with the government.''
``If I didn't go with this side, they would kill me. If I didn't go with the other side, they would kill me,'' he said in explaining why he fled.
As many as 100,000 people have been killed and 38,000 have disappeared in Guatemala during the past 30 years of civil unrest, according to the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group. The group consists of more than 100 members of both houses of Parliament.
The years 1980-82 saw the highest levels of killings, by all accounts. And Indians were frequently the victims as guerrillas, which included Indians, clashed with the military in the Indian highlands.
James Cason, Guatemala desk officer for the State Department, says it is safe for the Indians to go home now because ``the violence levels there are way, way down.'' He refers to the State Department reports on human rights as proof.
``Although there are continuing and very serious human rights abuses, I think the situation is getting better,'' says Jim Thyden, director of the State Department Office of Human Rights.
He recently returned from a trip to Guatemala, including the Indian highlands. Some of the time he was accompanied by Guatemalan military personnel, he says. Though guerrilla activity has declined, he says, there is still a ``high degree of tension'' in the Indian areas.
State Department officials Cason and Thyden point to the scheduled election this fall of a civilian president for Guatemala as a further sign of improving conditions. But the US also pinned hopes of improvement on the last presidential election in Guatemala, in 1982. That election was followed by a military coup and continued allegations by human rights groups of killings and torture of civilians by government forces in the fight against the guerrillas.
State Department reports on human rights abuses in Guatemala rely heavily on clippings from local newspapers, a point noted by Mr. Neier of Americas Watch. Those newspapers report only ``a tiny fraction of the violence,'' he says.
Further, local newspapers often have few reporters in the more remote areas where most Indians live, he says. Thus much of the violence against Indians -- from guerrillas or the military -- goes unreported, he contends.
The State Department and Rona Weitz of Amnesty International say the violence in Guatemala is today more urban than rural.
But Ms. Weitz says, ``We have very, very strong concerns about the fate of people who have agreed to go back [from Mexico]. We know of people who have been persecuted.''
Most Guatemalans who have fled their country are in Mexico, many of them in refugee camps near the Guatemalan border. Others came directly to the US. The US position in deportation cases is that if the Guatemalans stayed for a while in Mexico, they only came to the US for work. And that is not a valid reason for getting political asylum, according to US immigration law.
But some Guatemalans here fled Mexico after the Guatemalan military attacked refugee camps in Mexico. Some also cited difficulties in making enough money to survive in Mexico.
The State Department has requested information about the fate of Guatemalans who have been deported or who returned on their own to their country from the US. Peter Upton, an attorney for the American Friends Service Committee in Florida, has provided the State Department with eight names and brief details of their reported deaths after their return.
While a number of Kanjobals interviewed here expressed concern for their safety if they return, one did not. Luis, a carpenter, said he could return safely. He said he came to the US because he had debts to pay and plans to return.
But he also said he worked with the military as a commander of the local civil patrol, then was accused by a fellow villager of being with the guerrillas. The military questioned him three times. ``I was very afraid,'' he said.
Human rights groups contend these civil patrols make life very difficult for Indians today. The Indians work 24-hour shifts, on a periodic basis. They are not paid for the work.
A Guatemalan human rights group has run into serious trouble. On March 30 of this year, Hector Orlando Gomez, one of its leaders, was kidnapped by armed civilians, according to Americas Watch. His mutilated body was discovered the next day. On April 3, another leader of the group, Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, was abducted with her two-year-old baby and 18-year-old-brother while shopping in Guatemala City, the capital. Their bodies were found in a wrecked truck April 4. According to forensic analyses, all three showed signs of asphyxiation, indicating they may have been killed prior to the wreck, according to Americas Watch.
Still, 20 more families signed up in late April as new members of the group, the Committee of Mutual Support for the Families of the Disappeared, according to Neier of Americas Watch, who calls for an end to US aid to Guatemala.
President Reagan is seeking $10 million for military-related projects in Guatemala in 1986, in addition to nearly $80 million in economic and other assistance. The US must base its policies in Guatemala on a ``balance'' between US national-security needs and US efforts to curb human rights abuses there, says the State Department's Thyden.
Quakers in the Sanctuary Movement
Between 1980 and 1991, nearly one million Central Americans fled political repression and violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua and sought asylum in the US. For much of that time, however, the US government maintained a policy of characterising these refugees as ‘economic migrants’ and refused them asylum.
Founded in 1980 by two Quakers and a Presbyterian minister from Tucson Arizona, the Sanctuary Movement provided legal, financial and material aid to these refugees, in open defiance of US Federal Law. From Arizona, the movement spread to other parts of the US and into Canada. As well as Quakers, the Sanctuary Movement involved Catholic, Presbyterian and other congregations - over five hundred of which eventually declared themselves official “sanctuaries” for refugees with no legal documents.
For Quakers Jim Corbett and Jim Dudley, their involvement began with Dudley’s chance encounter in 1981 with a hitchhiker who turned out to be a Salvadoran refugee. When their car was stopped by a US border patrol and the hitchhiker was arrested, Corbett and Dudley began to question why their government was returning people to what they both knew to be the scene of a cruel and bloody war.
Corbett began working with Catholic priests on either side of the Mexican-US border. Dressed in black and calling himself ‘Padre Jaime’, Corbett would travel across the border to visit refugees in prison in Mexico, taking them food and other supplies and helping to explain their legal rights in the US.
To begin with, Corbett sought to work within the law, accompanying refugees to make their application for asylum in the US, knowing that it would be refused but that they would be released into the custody of local ministers while their appeals were held. However, in June 1981, the US authorities began pursuing a policy of arresting asylum seekers and returning them to jail in Mexico.
Appalled, Corbett began smuggling refugees across the border himself, seeing this as a natural succession to the Underground Railroad movement through which Quakers a century earlier had helped escaping slaves. When he ran out of places to shelter people, he persuaded Presbyterian minister John Fife to open his church to them.
Eventually, in March 1982, when legal action against Corbett and others seemed imminent, Fife’s church became the first of many across the country to ‘declare sanctuary’. As Corbett told a news conference that day, “We will not cease to offer the sanctuary of the church to undocumented people from Central America. Obedience to God requires this of us.”
The movement maintained policies of not working with the ‘coyotes’ (the paid guides who profited from bringing refugees in the US) and of giving assistance equally to refugees from either side in the conflicts.
In 1983, Canadian Friend, Nancy Pocock, visiting Texas with the Inter-Church Committee for Refugees, realized that Canada could provide an alternative place of refuge for those fleeing Central America. This was the beginning of a parallel ‘overground railway’ – a network of legal channels by which refugees were passed to supporters in Canada. ‘Mama Nancy’s’ own home in Toronto continued to provide temporary shelter for refugees until her death in 1998.
In 1986, the US Justice Department indicted eleven members of the Sanctuary Movement, including Jim Corbett, on charges of conspiracy and encouraging and aiding “illegal aliens to enter the United States by shielding, harboring and transporting them.” The prosecution’s evidence rested largely on testimony of an informer and the defendants were not allowed to submit testimony regarding religious or humanitarian motivation. Eight were convicted and given suspended sentences. But the Sanctuary Movement continued to grow until, in 1990, Congress passed legislation allowing the president to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to groups in need of a temporary safe haven, giving legal protection to the refugees.
The original Sanctuary Movement dissolved, but since 2007, the New Sanctuary Movement – which had again involved many Quaker and Catholic congregations – has endeavored to protect immigrants against ‘hate, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation.’
The Sanctuary Movement Turns 30
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 Fife. 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 Fife.
Barring of Latina Candidate in Arizona Stirs Criticism of English Proficiency Law
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."8
The Sanctuary Movement
The Sanctuary Movement was a religious and political campaign that began in the early 1980s to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. It responded to restrictive federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.
At its peak, Sanctuary involved over 500 congregations across the country that, by declaring themselves official “sanctuaries,” committed to providing shelter, material goods and often legal advice to Central American refugees. Various denominations were involved, including the Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, and Mennonites.
Movement members acted in open defiance of federal law, and many prominent Sanctuary figures were arrested and put on trial in the mid and late 1980s. The roots of the movement derive from the right of sanctuary in medieval law and Judeo-Christian social teachings.

Central American Conflict

Between 1980 and 1991, nearly 1 million Central Americans crossed the U.S. border seeking asylum. Most were fleeing political repression and violence caused by civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, though some had fled Nicaragua in the wake of the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution. In El Salvador, the military killed over 10,000 people by 1980, including the famous Archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. churchwomen. In Guatemala, government-backed paramilitary groups killed 50,000, disappeared 100,000 and perpetrated 626 village massacres.[1] Official policy under the Reagan administration greatly hindered Central Americans from obtaining asylum status, however. Congress forbid foreign aid to countries committing human rights abuses, and it is well documented that the U.S. provided funds, training and arms to the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments throughout the 1970s and 1980s.[2] Because admitting these governments' abuses would bar the U.S. from providing further aid, the Reagan administration instead argued that Central Americans were “economic migrants” fleeing poverty, not governmental repression. Consequently, Central Americans stood little chance within the U.S. immigration system, where asylum is granted based on proof of “well-founded fear” of persecution. Just prior to the beginning of the Reagan Administration, Congress had passed the Refugee Act which incorporated this international definition of political asylum into US law - which formerly granted refugee status only to those "fleeing Communism."However, the Reagan Administration retained enormous discretion under the law and used all its power to prevent the legal recognition of Central American claims. And the numbers reflect this. Approval rates for Guatemalans and Salvadorans hovered somewhere under three percent in 1984, as compared to a sixty percent approval rate for Iranians, forty percent for Afghans fleeing Soviet invasion, thirty-two percent for Poles, twelve percent for Nicaraguans escaping the Sandinistas and one-hundred percent for Cubans. In 1983, one Guatemalan was granted asylum in the United States.[3]
Many Central Americans who found their way to the United States were placed in detention centers and sent home. Many protested this move, claiming that they would face severe dangers upon their return. An American Civil Liberties Union study in 1985 reported that 130 deported Salvadorans were found disappeared, tortured, or killed.[1]
Sanctuary formed as a reaction to these policies. As a movement, it originated along the border with Mexico and Arizona, but was also strong in Chicago, Philadelphia, California and Texas. In 1980, Jim Corbett, Jim Dudley, John Fife and a handful of other residents of Tucson, Arizona began providing legal, financial and material aid to Central American refugees. Their decision to do so—and therefore openly oppose federal law—was inspired by a mixture of shocking refugee stories, personal encounter, political sympathies and religious conviction. As Corbett recounts, the tradition of his Quaker faith and its involvement in the Underground Railroad compelled him to take action. Gary Cook, associate pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Massillon, Ohio, cited the simple experience of personal interaction: "We're a very conservative group of folks politically. But once we encountered the refugees face to face, we couldn't justify not taking them in."[4]
For Dudley, one of Corbett's friends, it was his experience coming across a man on the side of the road on the outskirts of Tucson one afternoon. As he described in an interview, after picking up the hitchhiker, Dudley learned through broken Spanish that the man was a Salvadoran attempting to make it to San Francisco. As they drove into town, Border Patrol agents stopped the car and identified the man as an illegal alien and promptly took him away. Dudley recalls the pleading look on the Salvadoran's face and the fear in his voice as he asked Dudley to lie to the patrol agents and tell them he was a friend and that they were going to Tucson together. Dudley left that day troubled and confused. Why was the man so afraid? Were the border agents going to send him back? What would happen to him if they did?[5]
On March 24, 1982, the second anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero's assassination, Fife, the Reverend of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, declared his congregation a public sanctuary. Outside his church he posted two banners that read: “This is a Sanctuary for the Oppressed of Central America,” and “Immigration: do not profane the Sanctuary of God.”[6] A rush of churches, synagogues and student groups across the country followed suit, and by 1985 Sanctuary became a national movement with roughly five hundred member-sites across the United States.
Movement members likened Sanctuary to the "Underground Railroad" of the 19th century: Central Americans would flee their countries, often under extremely dangerous circumstances, travel up through Mexico and eventually find a safe haven in a sanctuary community in the United States or Canada. To give a picture of how this phenomenon worked in practice, refugees coming through Tucson would make it to Nogales (the nearest border town in Mexico), often on foot, and find refuge at El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe) Catholic Church. With help from Padre Ramón Dagoberto Quiñones, the head priest at Our Lady, they would travel a short distance across the border to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, whose steeple was visible from across the border in Mexico. There they could find shelter, food, legal advice and perhaps a little money. The two churches kept in constant contact, and priests and lay people traveled frequently between parishes.[5]
Once the refugees found safe-haven in a Sanctuary community, U.S. congregations, student groups and activists often invited Central Americans to share their beliefs and experiences with the community. Refugees were invited to the pulpit to give their testimonies during church services, congregations held special Central American peace nights where stories were shared and information given, and Central Americans and North Americans talked frequently and openly, whether through Bible studies, meetings or rallies. As one congregant of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church remembers:
On any given night there might be from two to twenty-five [refugees] sleeping in the church. The congregation set up a one-room apartment for them behind the chapel. When that was full, they slept on foam pads in the Sunday school wing.[5]
Although many associate Sanctuary with Catholics and Quakers, the denominational make-up of the movement was quite diverse. 36% of Sanctuary congregations were Catholic, 22% were Presbyterian, 36% were Quakers, 28% were Unitarian, 2% Jewish, 10% came from university campuses and 1% from seminaries.The following are a sampling of official statements issued by major denominations within the U.S.[7]
The Presbyterian Church:The Presbyterian Church recommends that “That the General Assembly support congregations and individuals who provide sanctuary to asylum seekers as a way of showing Christian compassion for them and stressing the need for change in our government's plicies and actions; and that other congregations be challenged seriously to take this stance.” 1983.
The American Lutheran Church:“Resolved, that The American Lutheran Church at its 1984 General Convention…offer support and encouragement to congregations that have chosen to become refugee sanctuaries.” 1984.
The American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.:“Therefore, we commend to American Baptist churches the following:…that we respect those churches that, responding to the leading of God's Spirit, are providing sanctuary for refugees fleeing certain suffering and death in central America.” 1984.
The Rabbinical Assembly:“The Rabbinical Assembly endorses the concept of Sanctuary as provided by synagogues, churches and other communities of faith in the United States.” 1984.
Secular groups also embraced the Sanctuary Movement, such as Amnesty International, Americas Watch (which would later become Human Rights Watch), legal aid groups, liberal members of Congress and student organizations (the University of California was particularly active). Op-eds appeared frequently in major national periodicals such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. The entire city of Berkeley, California declared itself a sanctuary. Writer Barbara Kingsolver popularized the movement in her 1998 novel The Beans Trees, in which she provides a fictional account of a Sanctuary member housing refugees in her Tucson home.
This movement has been succeeded in the 2000s by the movement of churches and other houses of worship to shelter immigrants in danger of deportation. The New Sanctuary Movement is a network of houses of worship that facilitates this effort.[8] The New Sanctuary Movement allowes U.S. Officials in Catholic churches without permission of Catholic officials.From the late 1980s continuing into the 2000s, there also have been instances of churches providing "sanctuary" for short periods to migrants facing deportation from Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, the United States, and Canada, among other nations. From 1983 to 2003, Canada experienced 36 sanctuary incidents.[9] The "New Sanctuary Movement" organization estimates that at least 600,000 people in the United States have at least one family member in danger of deportation.[10]The movement itself was declared a 1984 winner of the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.

‍Historical Parallels

The Sanctuary Movement traced its roots to the ancient Judaic tradition of Sanctuary. As movement member Mary Ann Lundy phrased it, “The idea comes from the original Judeo-Christian concept of Sanctuary, where persons fleeing the law could go to places of worship and be protected.” In the Old Testament, God commanded Moses to set aside cities and places of refuge in Canaan where the persecuted could seek asylum. This concept can also be found in ancient Roman law, medieval canon law and British common law. Movement members also appealed to U.S. history, including the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad of the nineteenth century, the housing of Jews during World War II, the idea of the U.S. as a safe haven for immigrants and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. For Sanctuary congregations, this provided justification for acting against federal laws, and many members saw themselves as part of a larger transnational community. As Corbett wrote in 1983:
Because the refugees are here, a new exodus has already begun. Those enforced exiles are being joined by North American religious people who are voluntarily exiling themselves from a civil law without justice. Undocumented refugees and outlawed Christians and Jews are together forming a new exodus community that takes seriously a God who acts in history. Public sanctuary is an act that refuses to leave foreign policy to ambassadors and generals and compassion to the limits of law. The new exodus community is beginning to live a love that demands justice and acts with the power and authority that love carries. It is an authority rooted deep in Judeo-Christian tradition and US history itself.[11]

‍Sanctuary Trials

The Immigration and Naturalization Service Agency (INS) decided to crack down on movement members by the mid-1980s, which culminated in a series of high profile trials in Texas and Arizona.
In 1985, the INS launched a 10-month investigation dubbed Operation Sojourner, sending paid informants into sanctuary communities to gain the trust of members, find information and report back to federal officials. In 1985, the government initiated criminal prosecutions against two activists in the Rio Grande Valley—Catholic layman Jack Elder and Methodist Stacey Merkt, both of whom provided sanctuary to Central Americans at Casa Oscar Romero in Brownsville, Texas.[12]
In 1986, in the more publicized of the two cases, the Justice Department indicted sixteen U.S. and Mexican religious on 71 counts of conspiracy and encouraging and aiding “illegal aliens to enter the United States by shielding, harboring and transporting them.” This group of indictees included Father Quiñones from Our Lady Church in Nogales, Catholic Reverend Anthony Clark, Jim Corbett, John Fife, Sister Darlene Nicgorski, and a handful of other Sanctuary members and lay religious from participating churches.
In what became known as “The Sanctuary Trials,” the defendants called upon their rights protected under both the U.S. constitution and international law. They employed First Amendment free exercise claims, arguing they were simply living out their faith by providing refuge to their fellow brethren in need; this was the call of the Gospel and an exercise of their religion. As Sister Nicgorski stated on the day of her arraignment, “If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of the gospel.” Defendants referenced passages in the Old and New Testaments, such as Leviticus 19:34 ("The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself) and the story of Exodus (“What answer is there for the envoys of the nation? This: that the Lord has fixed Zion in her place, and the afflicted among God's people shall take refuge there” [Isaiah 14:32]).
The defense also called upon international law to defend their actions. They argued that the U.S. administration's policy towards Central Americans violated the 1980 Refugee Act, a U.S. law enacted under Carter that reflected international norms set down in the 1951 U.N. Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Sanctuary Trials spurred public outcry from many sympathetic to the movement. Demonstrations at INS facilities were held in San Francisco, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City, and Tucson, among other places.
Though the court did find 8 movement members guilty on alien smuggling charges, most received suspended sentences or underwent short house arrests. Supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a broad coalition of eight religious organizations also eventually brought suit against the U.S. Attorney General and head of the INS. Plaintiffs alleged, among other claims, that defendants violated domestic and international laws and movement members' First Amendment rights of free exercise. While the courts ruled in this case, American Baptist Churches vs. Thurnburgh, that international law did not apply and the government did not violate Sanctuary members' First Amendment rights, the movement won the public's sympathies and the government eventually granted asylum status to many of the refugees involved in the trial.Furthermore, many Congressional Democrats took up the cause of the Central American refugees—due in large part to the lobbying and publicity efforts of Sanctuary members. In 1990, the House and Senate approved a bill granting temporary protected status (TPS) to Central Americans in need of safe haven, but not until the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act did Congress allow fleeing Central Americans to apply for permanent residence.[13]
Broader Issues
Sanctuary represents an interesting concept oft discussed in sociology, political science and history: the tension between transnational and nation-state bounded conceptions of rights and citizenship. Sanctuary members viewed themselves as part of a transnational community with universal rights and responsibilities existing outside national boundaries. The United States government, however, viewed Sanctuary members as citizens of the nation who were acting politically and in defiance of federal laws. They rejected movement members' claims to international law's applicability inside U.S. courtrooms, as well as arguments that they were acting out of solely religious motivation.
Sanctuary also points to the effects of foreign policy on asylum policy within the United States. The Reagan administration's stance on Central American refugees reflected the government's broader goals within the region, which in itself reflected a Cold War strategy of containment and counterinsurgency. Therefore, asylum applications during the Cold War were not necessarily cases viewed within a vacuum and on an individual basis but opportunities to deny controversial activities of right-wing governments that the U.S. was supporting and grant status to citizens fleeing communist or Soviet-backed regimes.
  1. “Sanctuary Movement - Immigration and Naturalization Service.” Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America.
  2. Coutin, Susan Bibler. The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.
  3. Press, Robert M. “Is it safe for Guatemalan Refugees to return home?” Christian Science Monitor. May 30, 1985. “Sanctuary Movement.” University of Arizona Library Special Collections: Tucson, AZ.
  4. McGrath, Ellie. “Religion: Bringing Sanctuary to Trial.” Time Magazine. October 28, 1985.
  5. Tomsho, Robert. The American Sanctuary Movement. Texas Monthly Press: Austin. 1987.
  6. Davidson, Miriam. Convictions of the Hearth: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement. University of Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ. 1998.
  7. “Denominational Breakdown of Sanctuaries.” April 1985. “Sanctuary Movement.” University of Arizona Library Special Collections: Tucson, AZ.
  8. Sanctuary Movement history on New Sanctuary Movement page
  9. See Randy K. Lippert (2005). Sanctuary, Sovereignty, Sacrifice: Canadian Sanctuary Incidents, Power and Law. ISBN 0-7748-1249-4
  10. "Elvira Arellano Arrested Outside Downtown Church: Chicago Immigration Activist Taken Into Custody Sunday Afternoon"
  11. O'Brian, William. “From Charity to Solidarity.” Chicago Religious Task Force. “Sanctuary Movement.” University of Arizona Library Special Collections: Tucson, AZ.
  12. “Informer's ‘friendship’ with refugees is latest in list of history's betrayals.” The Arizona Republic. May 24, 1985. University of Arizona Library Special Collections: Tucson, AZ.
  13. Gzesh, Susan. “Central Americans and Asylum Policy n the Reagan Era.” Migration Information Source. 2006.

Additional References
An Historical Basis of HopeORAL HISTORIES - BOOK ICompiled & Edited by Eileen M. Purcell,Sanctuary Oral History Project, 315 Castro St., San Francisco, CA 94114
Sanctuary and Central America - 1980s-1990s
In 1979 Nicaraguan Sandinistas successfully overthrew the U.S.-supported government of Anastasio Somoza. The eyes of the world and many churches were fixed on Nicaragua. Thousands of lay and religious flocked to support the experiment in social justice. In 1980 with the election of President Ronald Reagan, the United States government began a sustained campaign to discredit and overthrow the Sandinista government.13
Similarly in El Salvador and Guatemala, there was increasing social and political upheaval. Popular movements and flourishing base Christian Communities challenged the entrenched economic and political elites and oligarchy, demanding reforms. They were met with harsh governmental repression.14
As more and more campesinos, labor leaders, priests and sisters were killed and thousands more displaced, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero emerged as a leading advocate for human rights and economic and social justice. The "voice of the voiceless," he denounced the repression and the structural sources of violence. He announced a vision of God’s love and justice on earth and articulated God’s "preferential option for the poor." He appealed to the United States to end all military aid. On March 23, 1980, Romero addressed the soldiers of the Salvadoran Armed Forces during his Sunday homily and said, "in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!"15
The next day, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass at the chapel of the Divina Providencia. According to the 1992-1993 United Nations’ Truth Commission Report, Roberto D’Abuisson, a former military officer trained by the United States at the School of the Americas, was the mastermind of the assassination.16
Eight months later, four U.S. missionary women were abducted, raped and shot at point blank by Salvadoran soldiers. Their deaths telegraphed state-sponsored terror on the one hand and the vision of a prophetic, thriving church committed to social and economic justice on the other. They galvanized world opinion and international solidarity. They bore witness to the repression the poor and marginalized had faced for years and forecast the brutality of the twelve year civil war which ensued, 8 claiming more than 75,000 lives. 17
The wholesale persecution of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan people and churches precipitated one of the largest mass exodus of refugees in the Western Hemisphere in recent history. Yet, unlike their Chilean and Argentinean counterparts, Salvadorans and Guatemalans were neither aided in their flight nor granted refugee status by the United States government. Instead, they faced harrowing and perilous journeys north only to meet a systematic, U.S. governmental policy of exclusion, arrest and summary deportation, often with no due process once they arrived in the United States. By its own admission, between 1980 and 1990, the U.S. government denied 97% of Salvadoran political asylum applications and 99% of Guatemalan applications.18
In late 1979 and early 1980, religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum joined national and international human rights advocates and immigration lawyers to question the U.S. government’s failure to uphold the United Nations protocols which recognized Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees as "prima facie" refugees.19
From the outset of the wars, the Central American community in San Francisco Bay Area opened their homes to their sisters and brothers pouring into the area.20 Local parishes and church agencies developed strong legal and social service programs. Catholic Social Service and the Social Justice Commission Latin America Task Force of the San Francisco Archdiocese joined forces to build support for refugees. Other mainline denominations’ social service arms did as well. We organized networks of pro bono lawyers, healthcare providers, social workers, teachers, and lay men and women who transported, housed, employed and supported the refugees. These efforts would later be dubbed "private sanctuary" and "the underground railroad." 21
At the same time we sought to tackle the root causes of the problem. For more than two decades in the aftermath of Vatican II, the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) and the National Council of Churches (NCC) and their local counterparts had been in relationship with the Latin American Church and the flourishing Base Ecclesiastical Christian Community movement. Returning missionaries testified to the emerging popular movement on the one hand, and government repression on the other. As early as 1980, the Archdiocese of San Francisco sponsored visits of leading human rights advocates from El Salvador to San Francisco. In March of 1980, Archbishop John Quinn – the President of the USCCB -- attended the funeral Mass of Archbishop Oscar Romero and witnessed military assault against the peaceful throng gathered in front of the national cathedral. In the summer of 1980, the Archdiocesan Social Justice Commission sent a three-person fact finding delegation to El Salvador to learn first hand why people were fleeing the country. I was privileged to participate in the delegation.22
Upon returning, we created the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop the Deportations and launched a broad educational campaign about U.S. immigration and foreign policies. This, in turn, led to an organizing drive that challenged the deportations and the U.S. policies that compelled refugees to flee their homelands in the first place. We maintained that the United States government was in violation of the 1980 Refugee Act which sought to align U.S. immigration law with international law.23 9
The refugees, themselves, organized strong, local self-help organizations. They shared their stories, fasted, marched, participated in legal challenges in U.S. Immigration Courts and held press conferences.24 But efforts to change U.S. immigration and foreign policies failed. By 1982, the wars were intensifying and the refugee crisis deepening. And U.S. policy makers clung to a discriminatory policy of summary exclusion.
In the face of these realities, the ULC’s pastor, Gus Schultz, proposed upping the ante by declaring public sanctuary. After profound soul searching with Salvadoran refugees from Casa Salvador Farabundo Marti and the Lectionary Group, it was agreed the congregations would consider entering a corporate and public sanctuary covenant with Central American refugees.
We adopted the educational method ULC had modeled in 1971, bringing refugees, lawyers, theologians and historians to share their stories and perspectives to inform the congregations’ decision whether or not to declare sanctuary. After intensive, congregation-wide educational processes and congregational votes, five congregations in Berkeley, California, and Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, simultaneously held press conferences and publicly declared Sanctuary. A lay member of St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Steve Knapp, drafted a new, written Sanctuary Covenant that pledged to " protect, defend and advocate for" Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in the face of U.S. governmental repression. It became the prototype for local congregations across the country.25
Though originally symbolic, the Sanctuary Covenant caught the imagination of faith communities across the United States. It became a vehicle to address the concrete humanitarian needs of refugees and to educate and organize opposition to the wars in the region. It caught the attention of local and national media and provided a public platform for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees and their religious supporters to share their stories and challenge U.S. immigration and foreign policies. 26
The Sanctuary Movement fostered a new set of relationships that cut across denominations, class, political party lines, race and national borders.27 It drew on deeply held faith convictions, the power of community and a long tradition of prophetic witness reaching back to the abolitionists, World War II, Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, and the peace movement. We were profoundly inspired by the living faith and courage of the refugees in the United States and the Christian communities, popular movements and prophetic leadership of the historical churches in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Their witness infused us with hope and courage.
In response, the United States government infiltrated sanctuary congregations and 10 social service agencies, indicted and prosecuted sanctuary leaders, and sent some to jail.28 The U.S. government’s crackdown on U.S. religious accompanying refugees, paralleled the U.S.-sponsored Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments’ brutal crackdown on the people and religious accompanying the poor and displaced in the region. Yet the greater the government’s efforts to intimidate and thwart the Sanctuary Movement, the larger the movement grew, and the stronger its ties with our counterparts in Central America became.29
By 1986 what started in six congregations had grown to include hundreds of congregations, national denominational offices, dozens of "Cities of Refuge" or "Sanctuary Cities," and hundreds of thousands of individuals. Local sanctuary workers joined together to form the National Sanctuary Defense Fund (NSDF) which raised millions of dollars through direct mail appeals for legal defense. NSDF supported local sanctuary covenants’ educational outreach and high impact litigation challenging U.S. immigration policies -- including the successful American Baptist Church et al. vs. Thornburgh case, which reopened hundreds of thousands of political asylum cases in 1992. 30 Thousands of religious and lay people visited El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, establishing ties to communities that endure to this day.
Rev. John Fife Continues Immigrant Humanitarian Work 25+ Years After Launching Sanctuary Movement
A new movement is growing across the country to provide sanctuary to immigrants in response to the rise in deportations and work raids by the federal government. The growing network is being spearheaded by the Reverend John Fife, the founder of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. [includes rush transcript]
Fife was the minister of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church for 35 years. The church was the first to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants from El Salvador in 1981. That launched a movement that eventually provided safe haven to thousands of Central Americans in over 500 churches and synagogues nationwide. The government infiltrated his group to gather evidence on the movement. In 1986, Fife was among eight activists convicted on various alien-smuggling charges. He served five years’ probation. In 2002, he helped to form the Samaritan Patrol, now part of No More Deaths.


AMYGOODMAN: We turn now to the Reverend John Fife. A new movement is growing in this country to provide sanctuary to immigrants in response to the rise in deportations and work raids by the federal government. The growing network is spearheaded by Reverend John Fife, who’s founder of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. He was the minister, at the time, of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church for thirty-five years. The church was the first to offer sanctuary to undocumented workers, immigrants from El Salvador in 1981. That launched a movement that eventually provided sanctuary to thousands of Central Americans in over 500 churches and synagogues nationwide.

The government infiltrated John Fife’s group to gather evidence on the movement. In 1986, Fife was among eight activists convicted on various alien-smuggling charges. He served five years probation.

But he couldn’t be stopped. In 2002, he helped form the Samaritan Patrol, which is now part of the No More Deaths movement.

He joins us in Houston, was part of the ceremony at the Rothko Chapel on Sunday, where the young activists Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were awarded the Archbishop Romero Human Rights Prize. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

REV.JOHNFIFE:Thank you. Nice to be here.

AMYGOODMAN:Well, how does this movement now, as you continue to work with this movement, link to the movement that you and others began in the 1980s?

REV.JOHNFIFE: Bottom line in all of these activities is the government’s failure to observe human rights standards and the lives of literally thousands of poor, desperate people, whose lives are on the line because of government policy that ignores refugee rights, human rights, basic human rights.

AMYGOODMAN: Explain what was happening in the early 1980s, how you got involved with the Sanctuary Movement.

REV.JOHNFIFE: In the early 1980s, it was pretty simple. People fleeing the death squads and the repression and the massacres of entire villages in El Salvador and Guatemala were arriving at this border. The whole international community informed the United States government that they were refugees entitled to at least temporary asylum until conditions changed in their countries and they were able to return.

The United States government, because we were in political and economic and military support of the guys running the death squads and massacring entire villages in El Salvador and Guatemala, refused to recognize them as refugees; when they picked them up on the border or in communities across the United States, were placing them in detention centers, flying them back in handcuffs, and turning them over to the very guys who tried to kill them in the first place. So that process of deportation to death had to be resisted, and the Sanctuary Movement was that point of resistance by faith communities.

AMYGOODMAN: And what exactly did you do? When people fleeing political persecution came over the border, you harbored them in your church?

REV.JOHNFIFE: In the churches, in synagogues. A new underground railroad was formed to move people from the border to safer and safer places. Folks who were at highest risk we got to Canada, because Canada respected human rights and refugee rights, and if we could get them to the border with Canada, they would be resettled as refugees there.

AMYGOODMAN: And what happened to you? What was the government response?

REV.JOHNFIFE: Government infiltrated our churches and synagogues with undercover agents pretending to be volunteers.

AMYGOODMAN: How did you know that in your own church?

REV.JOHNFIFE: Well, we only knew it after we were indicted. The government had to inform us about the infiltration in order to proceed with the trial. So we only learned about it then.

AMYGOODMAN: So the people that you thought were volunteers, you then had identified as government infiltrators.


AMYGOODMAN: You were charged in 1986 with seven other activists.

REV.JOHNFIFE: Yeah, a real bunch of desperados. There were two Catholic priests and a couple of women, religious, and the director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council and myself and some others.

AMYGOODMAN: And you were convicted on what grounds?

REV.JOHNFIFE: On the grounds that the judge ruled we couldn’t say anything in our defense during the trial about five subjects: international refugee law, United States refugee law, conditions in El Salvador, conditions in Guatemala, or our religious faiths. So we didn’t put on a defense.

AMYGOODMAN: And you ended up with five years probation?


AMYGOODMAN: Now, you’ve continued the movement today.

REV.JOHNFIFE: The movement continues in another human rights crisis on the border. This time the government has instituted a border enforcement policy — walls and militarization and National Guard units — that literally uses death and death in the desert of migrants as a deterrent, as a deterrent to other people trying to cross. That’s a gross violation of human rights, this policy, this strategy of deterrence by death. And to resist that, we formed No More Deaths, that puts volunteers out in the desert to try to save as many lives as we can.

AMYGOODMAN: Reverend John Fife, can you talk about who was key in the government at that time in the 1980s, and where they are today?

REV.JOHNFIFE: The Undersecretary of State for Human Rights then that literally was the government’s spokesperson for this policy of returning refugees back to death squads and repression was Elliott Abrams, and Elliott Abrams is now the point person for Mid-East policy in the Bush administration. And the guy who was then ambassador in Honduras in Central America was literally ambassador to the Contras during the Iran-Contra scandal.

REV.JOHNFIFE: John Negroponte.

REV.JOHNFIFE: And literally — John Negroponte literally supported and funded and trained the death squads of the Contras in that illegal and unconstitutional war, is now the point guy for Condoleezza Rice in the State Department on Mid-East policy.

AMYGOODMAN: When he was made the ambassador to Iraq, Honduras pulled out of the so-called coalition in protest —


AMYGOODMAN: — given his record in the early 1980s.

REV.JOHNFIFE: The whole world should pull out and protest against people of this background and this kind of history being in charge of United States policy these days. They’re literally war criminals.

AMYGOODMAN: I don’t know if you heard the beginning of the broadcast on Luis Posada Carriles, who has been let out of jail, a New Mexico jail, a Texas judge letting him out on immigration charges, but he was working with the US government, now clearly linked to the bombing of the Cuban airliner in 1976. What are your thoughts today on those who are allowed to walk freely in the streets of the United States and those who are captured, imprisoned, deported?

REV.JOHNFIFE: The United States is, has been for a long time, involved in the very terrorism and the very death squad activity that we profess to be so against, so opposed to. But yet, when you look carefully, the United States, as a matter of policy and as a matter of officials at the highest level, have been involved in not only illegal and unconstitutional violations of human rights and international law, but we have placed these guys in positions of high responsibility again and again and again. And if you look at the history of the Iran-Contra scandal and that illegal activity, now you find the same people being in charge of Mid-East policy. People of the United States need to understand that that kind of terrorism and that kind of criminal activity, literally war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by some of the leaders of our policy today — we’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to stop it.

AMYGOODMAN: So explain what you’re doing today, what the Samaritan Patrol is, No More Deaths.

REV.JOHNFIFE: Where you begin to resist, and these efforts are not only humanitarian aid efforts, they’re communities of resistance to the kind of violations of human rights the government policy is involved in. And active resistance involves direct aid to the victims. It also involves speaking out and trying to get border policy, border enforcement policy changed so that we’re no longer involved in massive violations of human rights and all that death and suffering.

AMYGOODMAN: If people want to find out about the whole movement, where can they go online?

REV.JOHNFIFE: Pretty simple. is the website.

AMYGOODMAN: Shanti and Daniel were charged in July of 2005. It’s now more than a year and a half later. Are you seeing the same kind of government response today?

REV.JOHNFIFE: We’re seeing increased militarization, increased repression and, as a result, increased death and suffering on the border of some of the poorest and most desperate people who only come, want to come work and support their families, feed their children. This is criminal.

AMYGOODMAN: We’re coming up on May Day, anniversary of some of the largest protests around immigration in this country. Do you see a change in atmosphere with Democrats now in charge of Congress?

REV.JOHNFIFE: Well, there is a change. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation is being seriously considered by the Congress this summer, and it’s critically important that this national debate and this reform of border policy begin to take some shape. But unfortunately, that legislation also involves more militarization, more walls, more —

AMYGOODMAN: What do you think is the answer?

REV.JOHNFIFE: The answer is pretty simple. This is a phenomenon — the migration of workers between Mexico and the United States — that benefits both countries. We’ve got to be able to document that. And we ought to document the exploited undocumented workers who are already here, who are part of our communities, part of our churches, part of our schools, important parts of our whole economy and community. We ought to document not only the migration of those workers, but those workers and their families who are already here, and restore this country to a community.

AMYGOODMAN: You know, I just flew in from Chicago, and it was interesting. I think it was the Chicago Tribune. I just read the piece in the plane about Filipino workers going abroad to places like Saudi Arabia and others, and how significant their remittance, sending back money, is to their country. It tops tourism. It is so significant that when workers come back to the Philippines, in some cases, at the airport they roll out the red carpet for them, and the president of the Philippines comes to greet them.

REV.JOHNFIFE: We ought to roll out the red carpet from this side of the line, as well, because those workers and their labor are essential for the well-being of our communities and our nation and our economy. It ought to be seen as a blessing and a privilege for both sides of the border, that migrant workers be able to move with legal documents and temporary documents back and forth so that their families and their work is valued to the extent that it ought to be. That’s the truth of the matter.

AMYGOODMAN: Reverend John Fife, I want to thank you very much for being with us, founder of the Sanctuary Movement, as well as the movement today, No More Deaths. He was the pastor at the Southside Presbyterian Church for thirty-five years in Tucson, Arizona.

Death by Deportation
A Denver Judge Denied a 16-year-old’s Political Asylum Application–and Sentenced Him to Death by Greg Campbell
They say you don’t hear the shot that kills you. Bullets always outrun the reports that announce them, and if the aim is good, death comes before the whip-crack of the shot can catch up. There’s no telling whether or not this was the case with 16-year-old Edgar Chocoy, who was gunned down March 27 in the streets of Villanueva, a town overrun by street gangs on the outskirts of Guatemala City. The day he was killed, he’d come out of hiding at his aunt’s house to buy juice and lingered in the littered intersections of the crime-ridden city to watch a Roman Catholic procession of saints through the streets. He never returned. By the time his family was told of his murder four days later, he’d already been buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery for the homeless.
Chocoy’s death came as a surprise to no one, least of all him. In spite of all of his efforts to avoid this fate, his life ended much as he’d predicted it would–in a flare of violence that’s all too familiar in Guatemala’s cities. Years earlier, at an age when most children are more concerned with their grades than their imminent murders, Chocoy sought every avenue of escape. Knowing that he’d been "green lighted"–marked for death–by members of a notorious gang he was trying to untangle himself from, he hid out with relatives until that became too dangerous for them, bused alone to Mexico, then illegally entered the United States in search of his mother who’d left him when he was 6 months old. Two years after he left, however, he was deported back to Guatemala by a Denver immigration judge who either didn’t believe his testimony that he would be killed there or didn’t care. By denying his application for asylum in the United States, Judge James Vandello effectively sentenced him to death.
Two and a half weeks after being returned to Villanueva, street executioners carried out that sentence, just as Chocoy said they would.
He’d heard those bullets coming for years.
Mara Salvatrucha
From the outset, Edgar Chocoy didn’t stand a chance. Born to an impoverished Guatemalan family in a city where wild street gangs openly battle overwhelmed security forces, the course of his short life followed those of all too many children in Central America who are abandoned or neglected by their parents. When he was 6 months old, his mother left him in the care of her father so that she could work in the United States. Chocoy lived with his grandfather–who was always either at work or at church–his uncle who sold drugs for a living and his aunt. He’d only met his father once. No one bothered to put him into school until he was 9 or 10.
As solace for his loneliness, Chocoy made friends of the kids he met in the street and at school. Many of the older children came to be like the family he’d never had. The trouble was that they were all members of a street gang that the Central Intelligence Agency calls one of the most notorious of the thousands of gangs that lay siege to Central America: Mara Salvatrucha, or MS. The name is derived from a species of aggressive swarming ants and, according to Al Valdez, an investigator for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in California, formed in the Los Angeles Rampart neighborhood in the 1980s. Its original members were Salvadorian refugees who, during that country’s civil war, fought with the paramilitary group Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and La Mara, a violent street gang.
"Like many other street gangs, MS initially formed for protection, but quickly developed a reputation for being organized and extremely violent," Valdez wrote in a 2000 article for the National Alliance of Gang Investigators. "Mara Salvatrucha is truly an international gang."
In Guatemala, MS is involved in everything from fencing cars stolen from the United States to trafficking military firearms. Members are easily identified by their elaborate tattoos, and their numbers are estimated at 100,000 in Guatemala alone. The extent of their criminal enterprise is massive and involves extortion, bold robberies, random assaults and brutal murders. By the time Chocoy was befriended by the gang, Central American countries began to crack down on the region’s estimated quarter-million gang members with bloody results. In response, MS began dismembering victims and leaving notes on body parts warning governments to back off.
It’s not known if Edgar Chocoy knew this level of detail about the gang that he suddenly found himself a member of in the summer of 2000. All he knew is that his new "friends" taught him how to rob chains and watches from pedestrians. They gave him a sense of belonging and purpose, however misguided it may have been. As he explained it to the judge during the Jan. 4 hearing on his asylum application, "They were the only friends I had, and I only knew them… I thought they were the only family I had."
It’s unlikely that he could have known what he was really getting into; after all, he was only 12 years old at the time.
Deadly decisions
If his testimony before the Denver immigration court was truthful, Chocoy didn’t seem cut out for the violent life of a gangster, even though he soon sported their tattoos, a requirement of Mara Salvatrucha members. According to a transcript of his hearing provided by his attorney Kim Salinas of Fort Collins, he tried to avoid fighting with other gangs or beating people with rocks and bats, as they often did. When a fight seemed imminent, he made up excuses to go home.
If he’d stayed in the gang, he might have eventually toughened up, gotten over his disdain for violence and ended up as one of the thousands of murderers who rule Guatemala’s streets. But when he was 14 he visited a different neighborhood and met kids who weren’t in a gang. They came from a wealthy family, and Chocoy enjoyed playing soccer with them. He’d visit their homes and play video games, getting a tantalizing taste of the sort of home life he’d longed for but never had for himself. He stopped wearing the tight white T-shirts and baggy pants preferred by the gangsters, and he became more and more scarce at their nightly 6 p.m. "hang-out" sessions, which regularly turned into crime sprees.
By distancing himself from Mara Salvatrucha, Edgar took his life in his hands. One of the rules learned quickly as a member of Mara Salvatrucha is that you do not leave the gang. He was beaten and robbed for dropping out of sight, and finally he was told that he would be killed unless he paid the gang 3,000 quetcales–the equivalent of $375–in a week.
He stopped going to school and went into hiding at his aunt’s house. Chocoy probably never saw his new friends again, the ones whose normal lives inspired him to quit Mara Salvatrucha. In fact, he rarely went outdoors at all, doing nothing in his aunt’s house except counting the hours. The one time he ventured outside, at night in the hopes of avoiding his MS tormentors, he was chased by them at gunpoint, threatening to shoot if he didn’t come to them with the money they demanded.
After that, his aunt’s house became a prison. MS members stalked the streets and waited for him across town at his grandfather’s house. His aunt finally told him he had to leave because, as he told Judge Vandello, "she didn’t want anything to happen to her… She knew that they didn’t care about killing somebody."
His mother in L.A., whom he barely knew, sent him money for a bus ticket to Mexico City.
At 14 years old, Chocoy left Guatemala in fear for his life.
Deport them all
There’s nothing unique about Chocoy’s flight north in an attempt to escape the violence that is synonymous with Mara Salvatrucha. In the past six months, thousands have done so, a wave of tattooed refugees who see the United States as a safe haven from the persecution they know will befall them for trying to escape Mara Salvatrucha’s clutches. Joining them in the exodus north are the gang members themselves who are getting out of the way of governmental crackdowns in El Salvador and Honduras. Guatemala has yet to institute a similarly tough anti-gang dragnet, but it’s expected to adopt one soon. All of these refugees and refugees-from-justice crash into one another in Mexican border towns where their wars with one another–as well as with indigenous vigilante groups–simply continue regardless of what country they’re in.
Mexico, of course, isn’t the last stop–everyone is headed for the border, and MS gangs are present in California, Oregon, Alaska, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Washington, D.C. Most members are in the United States illegally.
The U.S. response to this wave of criminals from the south has been simple: round them up and deport them. In October, local and federal law enforcement conducted "Operation Fed Up" which resulted in more than 60 arrests of Mara Salvatrucha members in Charlotte, N.C., who were immediately processed for deportation.
The main tool used by judges to decide deportations such as these is a 1996 law that banishes illegal immigrants from the United States for life if they break the law, resulting in the biggest dragnet in U.S. history. More than half a million people have been captured and deported and their crimes range from petty theft to murder. According to government figures, in 2003, illegal criminals were being deported to more than 160 countries at a rate of one every seven minutes.
This catch-all approach to the problem has certainly rid the U.S. of some violent criminals, but it’s also been disastrous on more than a few occasions. The law doesn’t discriminate between volatile MS members and generally law-abiding illegals who may have come to the United States as infants. This is what happened to Eddie and Edgar Garcia of Sanford, Colo. They’d crossed the border at ages 4 and 6 respectively, and their town was filled with stories of how they helped their neighbors, supported their parents, played high school football and made good grades. But when one of them was stopped for driving without a license, they were both deported to Palomas, Mexico, where they hadn’t been in 16 years and where they knew no one.
On a more global scale, the "deport them all and let their home governments sort them out" approach is overwhelming these criminals’ home governments, according to the results of a six-month investigation by the Associated Press. In Jamaica, one out of every 106 men over the age of 15 is a criminal deportee from the United States.
In Honduras, according to the latest figures from Interpol, murders increased from 1,615 in 1995 to 9,241 in 1998, after the first wave of what is now 7,000 criminal deportees.
"We’re sending back sophisticated criminals to unsophisticated, unindustrialized societies," says Valdez, the Orange County gang expert. "They overwhelm local authorities."
But sometimes, those who are sent back are the ones who tried to leave gang life to escape to something better: a home life where instead of robbery, assault and the fear of being murdered, a child looks forward to weekend soccer games and love from his family.
Homeboy without a home
Edgar Chocoy found neither of those in his mother’s home when he eventually crossed the border and located her in L.A. According to his own testimony, he barely knew her and didn’t stay with her for long. He started school in L.A., but couldn’t speak English. His MS tattoos made him a target of local gangsters who thought he was a member of a rival gang. Neither school nor life with his mom lasted long: He was kicked out of the school for fighting and kicked out of his mom’s house because he no longer went to school.
Scared of the idea of having to live on the street, he fell in with people he’d met on the L.A. streets–all of whom were gang members.
According to Chocoy’s Fort Collins attorney, Kim Salinas, he didn’t officially join the L.A. gang but he was involved in some of their activities. He transferred drugs from place to place and was given a .25-caliber pistol to protect the gang members. According to his testimony, he did this in exchange for having a place to sleep. In May 2002, he was arrested for possessing a firearm and again on July 28, 2002, for possession of cocaine base. On Jan. 15, 2003, he was arrested again for possession of a firearm.
Because of his young age, his violations were adjudicated, but he was sent to an Alamosa, Colo., detention camp in the custody of the INS because he was in the United States illegally. It was at the detention camp when he first heard of the concept of political asylum, and in October, Salinas began preparing his arguments that if he returned to Guatemala, he would be killed by Mara Salvatrucha gang members.
"I am certain that if I had stayed in Guatemala the members of the gang MS would have killed me," Chocoy wrote in an affidavit. "I have seen them beat people up with baseball bats and rocks and shoot at them. I know they kill people. I know they torture people with rocks and baseball bats. I know that if I am returned to Guatemala I will be tortured by them. I know that they will kill me if I am returned to Guatemala. They will kill me because I left their gang. They will kill me because I fled and did not pay them the money that they demanded."
The gang wasn’t the only worry awaiting Chocoy if he were to be sent back–former gang members have everyone to worry about. Not only was he still marked for death by Mara Salvatrucha, but possibly also by the police and vigilante gangs who often take matters into their own hands by leveling street justice upon those they fear will continue their lives of crime once they’re returned to Guatemala.
Among his biggest problem were Chocoy’s tattoos, which forever branded him as a member of Mara Salvatrucha. When he was in L.A., he’d heard about a group called Homeboy Industries, which specialized in removing gang tattoos, and he’d gone through two of the painful procedures before being moved to Colorado to await his deportation hearing. But having the tattoos removed was just as much of a fateful decision: If an MS member ever found out about it, there would be no way to fake it and profess that he wanted to join the gang again, if only for self-preservation. "They’ll know who he is whether he has his tattoos removed or not," Salinas told the judge during Chocoy’s hearing. "In fact, arguably that makes him even more of a target because that’s more evidence that he did leave the gang… and would make him even more subject to their persecution."
At his Jan. 4 hearing, Chocoy pleaded with the judge for his life. His testimony is punctuated by numerous statements that he would be killed if he were returned. As Salinas put it in her closing arguments, Chocoy made a number of bad decisions in his young life, "but he also made a very good decision, that is, to leave the gang," she testified. "But when he made that decision, he was punished by persecution… Edgar made a choice to… escape from the life he’d known and to escape from the Mara Salvatrucha… He was denied that chance because the gang Mara Salvatrucha controls through force and fear because it doesn’t serve their interest to have children leave them to play soccer and video games. Edgar made a decision to better his life and for that decision he was beaten, his life was threatened and he was forced out of his home, out of his school and out of his country.
"Edgar’s now before you for his final chance to save his life," she continued. "He’s asking you not to send him back to a country where he’s been identified as one who must be killed. He’s asking you not to send him back into the arms of his persecutors. He’s asking you for one final chance to escape the gangs and become a child, a child who’s safe from fear and danger, a child who’s free to attend school, to pursue a career, to live in a home [with] a family… He’s asking for the opportunity to become a productive adult. He’s asking that you not deny him his ultimate chance."
The death sentence
In giving his verbal decision about Chocoy’s application for asylum, Judge Vandello recapped Chocoy’s case and considered a slew of supporting documents, including an affidavit from Bruce Harris, the director of Casa Alianza, a Central American children advocacy group, which said that sending Chocoy back to Guatemala would be a death sentence for him. Vandello read a psychological evaluation which concluded that Chocoy was depressed and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He read a letter from Santiago Sanchez, a counselor at Homeboy Industries, who said Chocoy has a lot of support and a suitable home with an aunt in Virginia who offered to raise him, an offer that was initially approved by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Another letter from a teacher at the San Luis Valley Youth Center said Chocoy was doing well in school and that "he has a positive attitude and… has been a valuable asset to their program."
The judge acknowledged several reports on gang violence in Guatemala, including one that said an average of 30 to 40 children are murdered every month in Guatemala in gang-related violence.
Finally, he said he found Chocoy’s testimony to be credible.
"He appears to have told his story honestly and directly," Vandello said. "I have no reason to doubt his credibility."
Nevertheless, Vandello denied the asylum application, effectively sentencing Chocoy to death. Vandello declined to comment for this article, but in the transcript from the hearing he based his decision on his belief that Chocoy could safely return to Guatemala and live an anonymous life, in spite of all the testimony to the contrary.
"I also note that Guatemala is a country of 13 million people," Vandello said. "The respondent has to show that his fear of persecution is nationwide, and I find it hard to believe that if he were to go to a part of Guatemala without tattoos and get a job and try to live a normal life, I find it hard to believe that he would be identified as a gang member who defected and then would be harmed. There are many cities and many places he could live I believe without being so identified."
But in his final statements, Vandello seems to imply that Chocoy brought the danger he might experience on himself.
"The United States has many programs to help youths from other countries learn English, get jobs, stay out of gangs," he said. "But he chose to get into another gang, he was arrested by the police twice for carrying a loaded weapon, and another time for delivering drugs, and I find that such a person, even though a juvenile, is not entitled to asylum and should not be granted asylum in the exercise of discretion.
"It appears that he has taken steps recently to try to do something with his life," he concluded. "These steps are very late, and I find that his past speaks… more loudly than his present attempt at rehabilitation."
The decision was a blow to Chocoy’s advocates.
"I can’t believe a judge could say that," says Anna Sampaio, assistant professor of political science at Denver University. "It says there is no purpose in incarceration or rehabilitation. It says you cannot pay for your past. And most importantly, it shows an ignorance, a misreading of what is going on in communities of color, the reasons why kids on the street in Central America wind up in gangs."
Sampaio was originally tapped by Salinas to provide expert testimony on gang life in Guatemala, but was never called to offer her testimony.
"It probably wouldn’t have made a difference considering what’s happened since 9/11," she says.
According to Sampaio, prior to 9/11, there would have been other processes in place that likely could have stopped the deportation of a minor like Chocoy, but those options have all but disappeared under the new government emphasis on fighting terrorism. "They now deport first and ask questions later," she says.
The governmental ignorance she refers to stems from a lack of understanding about the economic conditions in Central America and how those conditions impact children.
"You have tens of thousands of kids living on their own on the street by the time they are 3 years old," she says. "They don’t make an intelligent decision to join a gang. They decide that the only way to eat and survive is to be associated with a gang. The gang becomes their only family, their protector. There are no government programs to keep them alive. It’s a gang or death in most cases. And can a kid under the age of 10 or 12 really understand the decisions they are making without any input from an adult? Edgar’s decision to get out of the gang may have been one of his first true decisions after reaching an age where he could decide something on his own."
In the end, the 16-year-old was too tired to fight Vandello’s decision. Salinas says he ultimately decided not to appeal because he couldn’t stand being locked up until a new hearing could get underway.
Chocoy was returned to Guatemala on March 10.
On March 27, he was shot dead.
Chocoy’s death has caused an international outcry.
Both Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have issued statements condemning Vandello’s decision to deport him. Representatives of U.S. government agencies have been put in the unenviable position of defending the judge’s decision, albeit weakly. Associated Press quotes Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as saying, "There is a real likelihood that the same fate would have befallen him if he was allowed to stay here."
Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families at Health and Human Services told the Denver Post, "Sometimes very bad things happen despite the fact that people do the best they can."
Others put the blame on the home countries.
"I don’t think we can control what happens in Guatemala," Jeff Copp, special agent in charge of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Denver, told the Post. Copps’s view is, of course, correct, but raises the point that if you can’t control what happens in Guatemala’s violent streets, perhaps children shouldn’t be deported there. It seems that since 9/11 those most familiar with the conditions in the deportee’s home country are being given the least input into the deportation process.
"The Chocoy case has made us all more aware of the dangers associated with gang activity in the countries of origin," says Ken Tota of the Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. "But it is still not our call. Ultimately it is the Justice and Homeland Security departments that have the final say on deportation. Perhaps we should get more involved during the hearing process."
When questioned about his office’s decision to pull its permission for Chocoy to live with his aunt in Virginia, Tota stops short of saying that his office was pressured to do so by Homeland Security. He did however, admit that it was Homeland Security’s intervention–the agency sent a record of Chocoy’s criminal past to HHS and suggested that he should not be allowed to live with the aunt–that was the deciding factor in rescinding the permission for Chocoy to stay.
"Based on the current laws and the way they are being enforced," says Tota, "it’s the criminal background that immediately disqualifies someone for asylum, even if they are minors. We’re hopeful that consideration of the conditions in the home country will eventually become more important to the process. We’re trying to train our people about the gangs and the consequences of returning children with gang ties. I understand that the Child Protection Act has a clause that would give us more control over the process based on country conditions."
Regardless of what the Child Protection Act authorizes, it’s clear that cultural education is needed at the bureaucratic level–for example, while Tota’s office is actively involved in helping kids like Chocoy to break their gang ties, it also encourages former gang members to have their tattoos removed, often before it’s known whether or not they’ll be deported.
When told that a gang member whose tattoos had been removed was often more susceptible to persecution by members of the gang, Tota seemed shocked.
"I hadn’t considered that," he says. When asked if it is a good idea to suggest to former gang members that they remove their tattoos before it is known whether or not they will be deported, Tota responded, "It may not be."
Still, there may be a positive side to the Chocoy tragedy. Tota assures that his office will be more proactive in future cases.
Salinas credits the outrage over Chocoy’s murder to the fact that, for a change, news of his fate reached the United States.
"There are a lot of times when we just don’t know what happens to people, but in this case his mother was in touch with me and contacted me and said he was killed," she says. "What happens in a lot of cases is that we don’t know what happens to people when they go back to their countries… [Immigration attorneys] don’t know what happens to people who are denied their asylum claims, they never hear from them and they’re never in touch with them again, so who knows what happens to them?"
Salinas says the news of Chocoy’s death hit her particularly hard; she’d grown close to him during the five months she prepared his case.
"He was a sweet boy who just wanted a chance. He had bad breaks all his life," she says. "I would have been proud to have had him as a son.
"He was a great kid."
Joel Dyer and The Associated Press contributed to this article.