Church (Sanctuary, Part 1)

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In July 1980, a group of Salvadorian migrants crossed the border from Mexico into Arizona. They walked over an isolated mountain range and halfway across a wide desert valley. There were more than two dozen of them. People who’d left behind lives and jobs to come to the United States.

Delaney Hall:
They’d hired some guides to lead them on the journey.

Roman Mars:
Reporting our story this week is Delaney Hall.

Delaney Hall:
And those guys had brought them to a largely uninhabited part of the border. It was a vast, empty and fatally hot stretch of the Sonoran desert.

Reverend John Fife:
The temperature the next day got up to around 112-115 degrees out there. It was deadly.

Delaney Hall:
This is Reverend John Fife. He’s a Presbyterian minister from Tucson, which is a couple of hours from where the migrants crossed.

Reverend John Fife:
They were in the middle of the most desolate and deadly area of the desert. And I think out of the group of 26, 12 of them died the first day out.

Delaney Hall:
The survivors were eventually found delirious and suffering from intense dehydration and heatstroke. Some of them had stripped off their clothes. Border patrol agents brought them to a hospital in Tucson, which is where Reverend John Fife met them.

Reverend John Fife:
And they asked some of us who were pastors to provide some pastoral care for the survivors who were traumatized beyond understanding. And they began to tell me why they’d fled El Salvador.

Roman Mars:
At that point, Reverend Fife had lived in Tucson for more than 10 years leading a small congregation at a church called Southside Presbyterian.

Delaney Hall:
He didn’t know much about Central America or what was going on in countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador around this time.

Reverend John Fife:
Yeah. Not only ignorant, but I couldn’t have put El Salvador on a map. I knew it was somewhere between Mexico and Panama, but that was the extent of my knowledge. So I had a lot to learn and a lot of catching up to do.

News Report:
“The people of Salvador are caught in a web of terror trapped between the military forces of the ARENA government and the guerrilla forces of the FMLN. No one is safe in this civil war.”

Roman Mars:
El Salvador’s civil war had been decades in the making. Since the early 1900s, the country had been ruled by a series of oligarchs and corrupt military leaders. They maintained control by repressing large segments of the rural population.

Delaney Hall:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of left-wing guerrilla groups began to grow in power and influence. The military responded by trying to crush this resistance. Death squads targeted union leaders, community organizers, and other people they suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas. That included priests and nuns. Lots of civilians were caught in the middle of this violence. Thousands of people were disappeared, murdered, or displaced.

News Report:
“Today the Salvadorian people continue to suffer as a persistent pattern of brutal human rights violations, grips the nation.”

Roman Mars:
And El Salvador wasn’t the only country where this was happening. Similar conflicts were unfolding in Nicaragua and Guatemala where authoritarian governments were facing pressure from left-wing rebels.

Delaney Hall:
This is the history Reverend John Fife started to learn about when he met the Salvadorian migrants who’d nearly died in the desert near Tucson.

Reverend John Fife:
Well, basically they were telling me why they’d fled El Salvador, about threats from death squads, killings of members of their family or close friends, that sort of thing, and the reason why they had to flee.

Roman Mars:
He didn’t know it then, but Reverend Fife was witnessing the beginning of something big. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans were trying to get away from these dangerous and bloody civil wars. They were fleeing their countries, making their way through Mexico and crossing into the United States.

Reverend John Fife:
So a major migration of refugees occurred along this border during that 10 year period, beginning in 1980.

Roman Mars:
Reverend Fife’s church sat less than 100 miles from the border and it would be completely swept up in this crisis. Eventually, Fife and his congregants would give shelter to hundreds of Central Americans. They’d be joined by a network of churches across the country, all opening their doors and giving migrants a safe place to stay.

Delaney Hall:
This would mark the beginning of a new and controversial social movement based on the old religious concept of sanctuary, the idea that churches have a duty to shelter people fleeing persecution.

News Reports:
“More than 6,000 people have signed up to provide sanctuary around the country.”
“…cracks down on so-called sanctuary cities. There are hundreds…”

Delaney Hall:
There’s been a lot of talk about sanctuary in the news recently and the modern movement in the U.S. can trace its roots back to Reverend Fife.

Roman Mars:
We’re going to spend the next two episodes looking at how the sanctuary movement started and how it caused one of the biggest showdowns between church and state in recent history.

Delaney Hall:
After that first encounter with the Salvadorans at the hospital, Reverend Fife began to see more and more Central Americans arriving in Tucson. Some of them would come to his church and ask for help and at first, his inclination was to work within the rules of the immigration system.

Reverend John Fife:
I was pretty naive at that point and I went to the immigration office here in Tucson, met with the director and said, “We’re seeing refugees who are fleeing for their lives. What do we need to do to protect them?” And he said, “Well, we have good political asylum law on the books and if they’re deserving of political asylum, if they’re refugees, they’ll get political asylum.”

Ruth Anne Myers:
Asylum you apply for if you were within the United States and have a well-founded fear of persecution. I’m talking law here.

Delaney Hall:
This is Ruth Anne Meyers.

Ruth Anne Myers:
I was District Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for Arizona in 1984 and a couple of years later they added Nevada.

Roman Mars:
Since 1980, when Congress passed the Refugee Act, the U.S. has asked people to meet a number of requirements in order to be granted political asylum. They have to establish that they fear persecution in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.

Delaney Hall:
They also have to convince immigration that their government is actually involved in their persecution or that it can’t control the groups that are. If someone shows up in the U.S. and they can meet those requirements, they’re supposed to be able to stay, but it’s not always that simple.

Roman Mars:
Meyers used to interview people seeking asylum, and she says it could be tough to establish a person’s status. It relied heavily on a single individual’s testimony about what they’d been through.

Ruth Anne Myers:
It depends on the individual. It depends on what they say and how they say it and if they have any backing. So basically it was my decision based on my experience and what the person said. Because as you can understand, there was very little physical evidence of this.

Roman Mars:
Despite the challenges of qualifying for asylum, Reverend Fife and his church raised some money and organized legal assistance for the migrants. They started visiting detention centers and helping people fill out asylum applications. They arranged for lawyers to represent them in court.

Delaney Hall:
But it began to seem like even the people who met the requirements for asylum were not getting it. Even in cases where there was physical evidence.

Reverend John Fife:
I can remember taking in a guy who had been tortured in El Salvador, and we flew in an Amnesty International doctor who testified that “Yeah, this guy’s been tortured. I’m an expert on the physical effects of torture,” and the immigration judge would order him deported the next day.

Delaney Hall:
Reverend Fife began to wonder what was behind these decisions to deport.

Roman Mars:
Central Americans, hoping for asylum faced some significant hurdles. For one thing, just as they began turning up along the U.S.-Mexico border in 1980, tens of thousands of refugees from other places like Cuba and Iran were also seeking refuge in the United States. The government was overwhelmed with applications.

Delaney Hall:
Most Central Americans had also historically come to the U.S. for jobs, not because of political persecution. The government was more inclined to see them as economic migrants.

Roman Mars:
And on top of that, there was the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan:
“Mr. Speaker, distinguished members of the Congress, honored guests and my fellow Americans…”

Roman Mars:
In 1983, president Ronald Reagan delivered a special televised speech before Congress. In it, he outlined his concerns about the civil wars flaring up in Central America.

Ronald Reagan:
“Too many have thought of Central America is just that place way down below Mexico that can’t possibly constitute a threat to our wellbeing. And that’s why I’ve asked for this session. Central America’s problems do directly affect the security and the wellbeing of our own people and Central America…”

Roman Mars:
Reagan saw Central America is an important front in the Cold War, a region so close to the U.S. that our national security required us to stop communist movements from flourishing there.

Ronald Reagan:
“Nicaragua is just as close to Miami, San Antonio, San Diego, and Tucson as those cities are to Washington where we’re gathered tonight.”

Delaney Hall:
Just a few years earlier in 1979 a socialist revolution actually did happen in Nicaragua. The Sandinista National Liberation front had ousted a U.S. backed dictatorship, which had ruled the country for decades.

Roman Mars:
At the time of this speech, the Reagan administration was sending aid to Contras fighting the new socialist Sandinista government, and the U.S. was also doing its best to suppress similar left-wing movements in El Salvador and Guatemala, which went backing the authoritarian governments that still had a grip on power in those countries.

Ronald Reagan:
“In summation, I say to you that tonight, there can be no question. The national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America. Thank you. God bless you. Goodnight.”

Delaney Hall:
So here’s how this all connects back to Tucson and the deportations that Reverend Fife was seeing. Because the U.S. government considered the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala to be political allies in the fight against communism, it denied these governments were persecuting their own people.

Roman Mars:
“Under Reagan, almost all Salvadoran and Guatemalan border-crossers were classified not as political refugees but as economic migrants. That meant they didn’t qualify for asylum. They got sent back.”

Delaney Hall:
Ruth Anne Myers, the former INS director in Arizona says immigration officers followed policy set by the government, which has broad discretion when it comes to asylum decisions.

Ruth Anne Myers:
The immigration officers, whether it be enforcement or the asylum officers or whatever, were not making up their criteria or the law. This all came from Congress.

Delaney Hall:
The result of this policy was stark when it came to Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Between 1983 and 1986 fewer than 3% of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who applied for asylum were approved. In that same period, the approval rate for Iranians was 60%. For Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, it was close to 40%.

Roman Mars:
Back Tuson that put Reverend Fife and his congregants in a tough position. They didn’t want to encourage migrants to report to immigration when they knew it was almost certain they’d be deported.

Delaney Hall:
So they held a series of meetings to figure out what to do. And that’s when Jim Corbett started showing up.

Reverend John Fife:
It’s hard to describe Jim because he was a unique figure.

Delaney Hall:
Jim Corbett died in 2001 but back in the 80s, he lived on the edge of Tucson. He raised goats, and he knew a lot about philosophy. He was also a Quaker, and as the refugee crisis in Tucson continued to grow, Jim’s religious faith compelled him to take action. He’d started letting refugees stay at his house and in some of the ramshackle trailers scattered around his property.

Roman Mars:
So Jim starts coming to meetings at Southside Presbyterian church where they’re discussing the deportations. And after one of those meetings, Jim comes up to Reverend Fife.

Reverend John Fife:
And his contention at that point to me was, “John, I don’t think we have any choice under the circumstances except to begin to smuggle people safely across the border so that they’re not captured and detained and deported.” My response was, “How the hell do you figure that Jim?” And he explained.

Roman Mars:
Jim explained that they needed to consider two moments in history. The first was back in the 1800s when church people, a lot of them Quakers, helped move runaway slaves across state lines and through the underground railroad to safety.

Reverend John Fife:
And he basically said, “We have to conclude from history that they got it right. Those were the folks who understood and got it right.”

Delaney Hall:
Then Jim pointed to the church and its failure to protect Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust in the 1930s and 40s. Many Jews were detained and deported back to Germany where they were killed. Jim argued that Christians should have done more to protect them.

Reverend John Fife:
And he said “They failed. They failed completely as people of faith. As the church.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” And his punchline was, “John, I don’t think we can allow that to happen on our border in our time.” And after a couple of sleepless nights, I went back to them and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I cannot be a pastor of a church, here on the border and not do what you’re asking. So sign me up.”

Roman Mars:
At this point, Jim Corbett had already done some border runs on his own, picking up migrants in Mexico and helping them cross the border into the United States. But now Reverend Fife and a handful of others started helping him. At first, they’d bring people across and put them up at Jim’s house. But it quickly became clear they needed more space. So once again, Jim came to talk with Reverend Fife, he wanted the church to start hosting people.

Reverend John Fife:
That was a question that the whole congregation had to deal with. And that’s not an easy choice for people to make.

Delaney Hall:
They talked and prayed and then voted to let Central American refugees stay at the church. Soon on any given night, the church would have dozens of people sleeping in the main gathering space. Church members would provide food, clothes, English lessons, medical care, and access to legal advice. They’d help the refugees strategize about what to do next. It wasn’t as if the migrants were entirely safe. They were still undocumented and faced possible deportation, but they had access to resources, guidance, and a place to stay.

Roman Mars:
The congregation at Southside was drawing on a long religious tradition when they decided to take the refugees into their church.

Reverend John Fife:
It’s actually an ancient tradition of temples and churches and synagogues and sacred sites of indigenous peoples that goes back as far as any history we know about.

Delaney Hall:
In Greek and Roman history, people who are threatened with persecution could find protection in temples. When the Roman Empire became Christian, churches took on the same function. The concept of sanctuary can also be found in medieval canon law and British common law. And as nation-states evolved in Europe, some of those nations legally recognized the right of churches to shelter people. More recently, churches sheltered conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.

Roman Mars:
But even though Reverend Fife was drawing on a long religious tradition, he and his congregants were still harboring undocumented immigrants who crossed into the country illegally. And as it turns out, the government was keeping an eye on their growing operation.

Reverend John Fife:
Well, what do we do under those circumstances? And the only conclusion we came to was, “Well, the only choice we have is to go public with what we’re doing.”

Delaney Hall:
They thought maybe by going public, the church could generate attention and public support. They invited a couple of other churches to join them in a public announcement. And in March of 1982, they hung two huge banners on the front of the church. They said in Spanish, “This is a sanctuary of God for the oppressed of Central America,” and “Immigration. Do not profane sanctuary of God.”

Roman Mars:
They held a service and publicly welcomed a new family from El Salvador to join the other refugees who were staying at the church, and they staged a press conference to explain exactly what the sanctuary movement was and what their goals were.

Reverend John Fife:
So, yeah, we made some national new.

Tom Brokaw:
“In the American Southwest, the sanctuary movement has become a highly emotional issue. Supporters of that movement, mainly church people help refugees from Central America.”

Dan Rather:
“All members of the so-called sanctuary movement that offers aid, comfort, and shelter to illegal aliens…”

News Report:
“About 200 churches across the United States have joined the sanctuary movement, vowing to violate the laws if necessary.”

Delaney Hall:
As the movement gained visibility, it became more controversial.

News Report:
“The federal government contends conscience is not a good excuse for violating the law.”

Government Spokesperson:
“Our objection to any such movement is that it takes law into its own hands.”

Roman Mars:
Despite these government objections, the movement continued to grow. More and more churches and synagogues started to get in touch with Reverend Fife.

Reverend John Fife:
They’d call us and say, “Can you send us a family? We’re going to declare sanctuary.”

Roman Mars:
A network started to develop, which meant Reverend Fife and Jim Corbett had to figure out how to safely transport refugees across the country to the churches that could support them.

Reverend John Fife:
And so Jim and I basically sat down here with a map of the United States and said, “Okay, who do you know in Albuquerque? And who do you know in Denver? And who do you know across the United States?” So we could move people, and we literally in one afternoon, figured out an underground railroad, and we modeled it on the old underground railroad.

Roman Mars:
By the mid-1980s hundreds of churches and synagogues across the country had joined the sanctuary movement. Almost every mainstream church denomination had gotten involved, including Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists. Sanctuary volunteers came from a wide variety of political viewpoints, including conservative. But everyone shared a belief that churches needed to respond to the Central American crisis.

Delaney Hall:
These American churches were connected to a network of churches that extended down into Mexico and Central America. So migrants could plug into this network and make their way north. Some would find shelter in Mexico, others would continue into the U.S.

Roman Mars:
That’s exactly what Patricia Barcelo did.

Patricia Barcelo:
My name is Patricia Barcelo. I am a refugee from Guatemala and I have lived in the United States since 1985.

Roman Mars:
Patricia grew up in Guatemala City and her parents were union organizers during the civil war, which made them a target of the government.

Patricia Barcelo:
They labeled my dad and my mom as being involved in subversive acts in wanting to overthrow the government. And that was enough for them to kill you, disappear you or do whatever they wanted to do to you.

Delaney Hall:
At one point, Patricia’s dad disappeared for many weeks. He’d been kidnapped by the military or the police. Patricia’s family never learned exactly who.

Patricia Barcelo:
He came home being the shadow of a man that he was because he was so skinny, and I mean boney. He had a beard so long. he didn’t look anything like my dad, but he made it back. And with him, he had a horrible story of torture and things that had been done to him that were just inhumane.

Delaney Hall:
At that point, Patricia’s parents fled to Mexico City leaving Patricia and her sister with their grandmother. Her parents said they’d be in touch when they had a plan. For two years, nothing. And then a letter from her mother.

Patricia Barcelo:
And the letter said, bring the girls to the border, bring them to this park in Chiapas and I will be there waiting.

Roman Mars:
Patricia and her sister crossed the border from Guatemala into Mexico and met their mom at the designated park. They learned that she’d met some Quakers involved in the sanctuary movement. The Quakers told the family to head to northern Mexico where they were met by a Catholic priest named father Ricardo Elford. He worked closely with Reverend Fife.

Patricia Barcelo:
He wanted to know what had happened in Guatemala. He wanted to know why we were wanting to come to the U.S. He said, “Just tell me, what went on because we want to bring you. We just want to know what we can do for you.” And my mom told him everything that had happened, and then he said, “Everything is going to be okay.”

Delaney Hall:
Father Elford was vetting the family. He was making sure they qualified as refugees. As the sanctuary network had grown, they’d had to develop a more formalized process. This was partly to ensure their limited resources went towards helping people who were most in need. It was also to try and ensure they weren’t putting volunteers at risk or bringing someone dangerous into the U.S.

Roman Mars:
One of the government’s criticisms of the sanctuary movement was that they lacked the expertise in resources to evaluate potential refugees. The government worried they might be helping criminals enter the country or communists who wanted to undermine the U.S. government. Here’s Reverend Fife again.

Reverend John Fife:
I would just kind of smile and say “You don’t understand the church. We have the best intelligence system in the world. As I understand it, what you say is you have five CIA agents in El Salvador right now. I have thousands. They’re called priests and pastors and all I have to do is pick up the phone and call them and they’ll give me the whole family history.”

Delaney Hall:
Once Father Elford was satisfied that Patricia and her family actually met the requirements for refugee status he arranged for them to be brought across the border into the U.S.

Patricia Barcelo:
We got picked up very early in the morning in this yellow truck, and we were thrown in the back, right under lots of sleeping bags. And they told us that no matter what, we couldn’t pop our heads up. We just had to stay underneath.

Roman Mars:
The family crossed into Douglas, Arizona and then headed to Tucson where they stayed at St. Michael’s Episcopal, another church in town that had declared sanctuary. After living there for six months, they moved into a house and started the long process of applying to stay in the U.S. It took them more than six years of legal wrangling to receive asylum. Patricia still gets emotional thinking about what the sanctuary movement did for her and her family.

Delaney Hall:
I remember my parents talking about this and saying, “Who would do this? Who would risk their lives, they’re good lives here in the U.S. for people like us?”

Delaney Hall:
But as the movement grew bigger and more visible, the whole endeavor became riskier.

Reverend John Fife:
Well, quite frankly, I never thought we were going to get away with this. I mean, the first time I went to the border to do a crossing, 1981 sometime, I had to get comfortable with the fact that we weren’t going to get away with this, that the government was going to come after us, and it was only a matter of time.

Delaney Hall:
John was right. It was only a matter of time. And the religious motivations of the sanctuary movement didn’t get much sympathy from the government.

Ruth Anne Myers:
They have the right to think what they want. Anybody does. That doesn’t exclude them from obeying the laws of the United States. Somebody could say, “I think it’s my religious right to rob a liquor store.” And I think most of us would say, “No, it’s not.”

Roman Mars:
Next week on 99% Invisible, undercover government informants infiltrate the sanctuary movement.

Reverend John Fife:
Yeah. A couple of these guys, I thought they don’t fit the usual sanctuary volunteer profile, right?

Credits

Production

Producer Delaney Hall spoke with Reverend John Fife, previously of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona; Ruth Anne Myers, former District Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for Arizona; and Patricia Barcelo, a refugee from Guatemala living in the United States since 1985.

Music

Orem Owls by OK Ikumi
Panic Disorder by Melodium
2019 I by OK Ikumi
Original Music by Sean Real

Comments (20)

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  1. jeremy

    Thanks for the episode, It’s nice for Christians to be reminded of a time they got it right; and the role they have in the suffering of all peoples.

  2. Armen

    I don’t understand why this podcast is going the political route. The reason what no one wants people from South America is because as a whole they tend to be a big tax payer burden (EITC, SNAP, Medicaid…..). Simple as that. Jus look at the stats. It’s not the job of US to take in the worlds batters wife.
    Stick to design and architecture please.
    Ps : this is coming from an immigrant who fall in the highest earning ethic group in America. Look it up

    1. Scott

      This listener doesn’t represent what most 99pi listeners think. Keep it up! Another amazing episode!

    2. Jackie

      Illegal immigrants actually contribute about $12 billion each year to state and local tax coffers, recent studies show that they by far are contributing much more then they receive.

    3. Josh

      99% invisible is about more than just design and architecture. It’s also about History and Infrastructure and Cities. This episode ties in 3 categories on a subject that I think most 99PI listeners (and I) will love. I can’t wait for the next 2 episodes!

    4. Jeff

      It may not be the job of the US government, but it is a Biblical mandate for people of the Christian Faith to look after the oppressed foreigner, regardless of the legal ramifications. Those people are seeking asylum due to the policies and practices of the US government (look deeper into our history and involvement propping up the oppressive regimes referenced in the article, and the church has a duty to look after those left behind by the ravages of empire. Nice to see this article that shows the sacrifices of some people of faith and goodwill.

  3. Richard

    I remember my family sheltering two Salvadoran men in the early 80’s in Cleveland through my mom’s church (Presbyterian) on their way to Canada, and being told I couldn’t talk about it at school. They were only with us a couple of weeks (I think), helped us around the house and then moved on. Very polite and good men, and I remember they always seemed kind of sad.

  4. kevin

    Important history, maybe, but not what I come to 99PI for. What does this have to do with design? This episode was better suited to a more journalistic podcast like This American Life. I really hope this isn’t a harbinger of 99PI becoming too broad in its focus and losing touch with what made it great (see Radiolab for another example of this problem).

    1. Kalecser Pasquali Kurtz

      Sadly this ep was purely political and had nothing to do with design. Unexpected, looking forward for its return to the former glory! :)

  5. Richard

    As an ethnic legal immigrant myself, I am appalled by 99pi’s action to prop up unvetted illegal aliens and dangerous criminals into my new country.

    We immigrants believe that a country has the right to establish and maintain its borders, and to limit or refuse entry for its best interest. 99pi doesn’t and I totally understand.

    I just don’t believe this is the right platform to publish your political agenda.

    Please leave dirty politics out of beauty of design. Thanks.

  6. Sylvia

    Thank you for producing what is my favorite 99pi episode to date.

    And thank you for Getting It.

    With tears in my eyes,
    A steadfast support of migrants (as well as recently laid off worker of U.S. refugee resettlement)

  7. Raza

    Thank you for a normally wonderful show and an exceptional couple of episodes. You folks are awesome keep up the good work

  8. Bee

    Sorry but I must echo the previous comments about the design aspects of the episode… which are few. Very interesting subject matter at the same time so thanks for that.

    Just stick to the core of the show, design and architecture. The weekly newsletters have been great in this regard. The Frank Lloyd Wright episodes were good, keep that up! And stop “borrowing” episodes from other shows, even if design based. I hope we donated for original content right?

  9. MichelleP12

    My first visit to your site and it is amazing. This article is great history to learn as that is a good thing and I didn’t know about some of this. Some commenters are concerned about straying from design only; so on that note, the immigration building pictured is downright ugly. 😉

  10. Manuel

    Thank you for showing this little piece from my local history. It’s rare to hear this stories told in any kind of medium. As a coin carrying Salvadorean listener, i approve.

    Thanks.

  11. Tom FJ

    My dad’s first cousin, a Catholic priest, was active in the Sanctuary movement. One of his activities was smuggling immigrants from the US into Canada at the North Dakota border. I didn’t understand then what was going on at the time, other than he was arrested and jailed at one point. His name was Rev. Richard Sinner.

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