SINCE 1980 at least 250,000 refugees from Central America have entered the US. Most have done so illegally, paying ‘coyotes’ in Mexico to help them slip past the border patrol.
The United States government does not regard Central American refugees as political refugees. According to the Reagan administration the majority come to the US as ‘economic migrants.’ They are quickly deported unless they can prove a ‘well-founded fear of persecution.’
There are hard reasons why Washington does not want to classify Central American refugees as political. Peasants from El Salvador and Guatemala have the misfortune of fleeing countries which are American allies and staunch enemies of Nicaragua and Cuba.
The United States provides essential military and economic aid to both Salvador and Guatemala. In effect, by encouraging terror and violence in the region Washington has helped create the refugee problem it now faces. Politically, this is a reality which the Reagan administration cannot afford to acknowledge by giving Central American refugees special status.
To Jim Corbett, a retired Arizona rancher active in helping Central American refugees, ‘the violation of refugee rights is an integral part of the US military strategy.’ According to Corbett, Vietnam-style pacification programs now being practised in Central America ‘require that people not leave the area in which they live.’
Affectionately known as the ‘Quaker coyote’, Jim Corbett is a central figure in a new church-based ‘sanctuary’ movement. More than 60 US churches have actively assisted Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees to cross safely into the United States, Jim Corbett estimates he has personally helped about 400 people enter the US. Many continue along a modern-day ‘underground railroad’ to temporary sanctuary in churches, where they are helped to find work and housing.
According to sanctuary supporter Rev. John Fife, pastor of the Southside United Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, ‘We came to the conclusion that the problem was US policy. We decided the only thing we could do was show the American people what was wrong with that policy.’
On March 24, 1981 (the anniversary of the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero) Fife’s congregation declared publicly its commitment to harboring and aiding Central American refugees in defiance of US immigration laws. Since then a nationwide movement has developed. About 60 cities have public sanctuary sites. Groups in 50 other cities and towns are preparing to ‘go public’. And over 600 other congregations and religious organizations, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Protestant of various denominations, have given public endorsement and financial support.
The motivation of sanctuary activists is both political and moral. The political goal is to change American policy in Central America. But the commitment to public sanctuary is seen as a religious as well as political responsibility. In Biblical times. ‘cities of refuge’ were established as shelters and holy places provided sanctuary ‘lest innocent blood be shed.’ The tradition of church sanctuary has evolved over the centuries. Many congregations have long provided shelter for the homeless. During the Vietnam War some provided sanctuary for draft resisters. Today that tradition is being revived and extended.
According to Kathleen Flaherty. a former Peace Corps volunteer active in the sanctuary movement in Washington DC. ‘the sanctuary movement provides a unique opportunity for churches to do a lot of soul-searching. It requires questioning what it means to be a religious person.
Those who harbour or aid illegal immigrants are subject to five years imprisonment and 52.000 in fines. But thousands of Americans are taking that risk. ‘It is only eight hours risk for me to drive a family to the next safehouse’, says John Fife. ‘But the refugees arc risking their very lives.’
The few hundred refugees aided by this network are obviously only a tiny fraction of those needing help. But Kathleen Flaherty believes ‘the churches are making a public statement and are publicizing a problem the government would like to keep hidden. The important thing now is to create opportunities for the refugees themselves to speak — to be heard by churches, community groups and elected officials.’
As this happens, the American people will hear a very different story about Central America than they are hearing from State Department officials. ‘I didn’t want to come here, said a Guatemalan Indian helped by the sanctuary movement to find a job and a home for his family. ‘God willing someday I will return to my home.’
There are legal efforts and a strong public campaign building across the nation to force the US government to grant Extended Voluntary Departure status to Central American refugees.
But sanctuary activists understand that only a reduction of indiscriminate political violence and terror will stem the flow of homeless from El Salvador and Guatemala. And this will require a dramatic turnaround in Reagan administration policies. To people in the sanctuary movement the Central American question is as simple and painful as the banner carried to the White House in a recent protest of US policies: ‘More US Intervention More Central American Refugees.’