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Timeline of the Early Sanctuary Movement 1951-1992

This exhibit presents the history of the Early Sanctuary Movement in the Bay area from 1951-1992, particularly the faith based communities and migrant leaders who lead the legal and political battles which eventually created Temporary Protected Status. The exhibit exposes the role of the U.S. government in contributing to violence and destabilization in Central America while highlighting the courage of refugees, activists, and ordinary citizens who fought tirelessly to protect human rights during the early sanctuary movement.

Open to the Public

Interactive Timeline of the Early Sanctuary Movement

United Nations Convention

The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, grounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognizing the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, is the centerpiece of international refugee protection today.

International community signs refugee protection agreements

146 countries, including the U.S., sign the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, defining refugee status and establishing the rights of refugees not to be sent back to their countries of origin.

Berkeley churches publicly announce sanctuary

Berkeley becomes the first U.S. sanctuary city by providing refuge to people who are unwilling to participate in the Vietnam War.

St. John’s Presbyterian Church sponsors political prisoners from Argentina

“Political repression had been going on in Argentina for several years; President Carter was moved to seek the release of 500 such prisoners if sponsors could be found. St. John’s youth group sponsored Claudio Vasquez, a young man who had spent three years in prison, and later, Horacio Martinez Baca, a high profile prisoner. These sponsorships were legal and at the instigation of the U.S. government.” – Rev. Bob McKenzie

U.S. Refugee Act is passed

Written by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Carter, the act guarantees asylum if a person is “unable to avail him/herself of the protection of his or her country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, or political opinion.”

February 17: Archbishop Oscar Romero asks President Carter to stop U.S. military aid to El Salvador

Romero’s letter describes the Salvadoran government’s “systematic violation of human rights” where “political power is in the hands of unscrupulous military officers who know only how to repress the people and favor the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.”

Romero asks Carter to “guarantee that the U.S. government will not intervene directly or indirectly with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people.”

March 24: Assassination. of Archbishop Romero

Five weeks after writing to President Carter, Archbishop Romero is assassinated while saying mass at the Hospital of the Divine Providence. To date, the Salvadoran government has failed to bring anyone to trial for this crime.

December 2: Four U.S. missionaries are raped and murdered by the El Salvador National Guard

The murders, and attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover them up, generate grassroots opposition in the U.S. and ignite intense debate over U.S. policy in El Salvador. President Carter suspends aid to El Salvador but later reinstates it.

January 20: President Reagan is inaugurated and begins funding military elites in Central America

The Reagan administration considers Central America a Cold War theater and provides training, weapons, and billions of dollars to military governments fighting Marxist popular movements and contra rebels fighting Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government.

To evade the U.S. congressional ban on supporting human rights violations, the administration denies Amnesty International reports that Central American governments had disappeared thousands of civilians and displaced and abused indigenous communities in Guatemala.

Around 75,000 people were killed during the war in El Salvador, 40,000 died in Nicaragua and over 200,000 (disproportionately indigenous) people died in Guatemala.

December 11: The Salvadoran Army, trained and sponsored by the U.S. Army, massacres close to 1,000 people in El Mozote

The U.S. State Department repeatedly lies about the massacre and initially denies news reports that it had even happened. After the massacre, Reagan continues to ignore atrocities unfolding in Central America.

At the height of the Guatemalan genocide, Reagan justifies continued funding to the Guatemalan military by signing white papers swearing that human rights in Guatemala are improving.

Nearly 1,000,000 Central Americans seek asylum as Reagan Administration cracks down on immigration.

Most are fleeing political repression and violence in Guatemala and El Salvador, though some flee Nicaragua in the wake of the 1979 Revolution. The Reagan administration insists Central Americans arriving in the U.S. are economically motivated and deports tens of thousands of people without informing them of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely documented human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants
constitutes a violation of U.S. obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Refugees are detained and held in Oakland jails

The jails are for-profit detention centers with low-paid, non-union jobs. EBSC starts a jail visitation program to connect detained refugees with pro bono legal help through the San Francisco Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights.

Throughout the 1980s, less than 2% of Salvadorans and 1% of Guatemalans were granted asylum, compared with other nationalities being approved at an average rate of 31%.

March 24: Sanctuary is publicly declared in the Bay Area and East Bay Sanctuary Covenant is founded

By 1986, EBSC is a 31-member organization with a mission to “protect, support, and advocate” on behalf of Central American refugees, end military aid to El Salvador and Guatemala, and educate the public about why refugees were fleeing. To assist those living under oppressive regimes, EBSC monitors and protests human rights abuses, establishes sister communities, and provides accompaniment—international presence—to support reparation. EBSC also organizes nonviolent actions and legislative advocacy to change U.S. foreign policy and end military aid to Central America.

EBSC establishes the Central American Delegation Program and Speakers Bureau

Sanctuary churches send North Americans to visit refugee camps to learn and report back on what is really happening in Central America. The goal is to listen to refugees and inform the U. S. public about why refugees are fleeing and what they can do to help.

May 2: 100,000 people march on the Capitol to protest U. S. military involvement in El Salvador

Hundreds of faith communities join the Sanctuary Movement

In just a few years, the Sanctuary Movement grows to more than five hundred congregations across the country. Faith communities create an underground railroad to transport people from southern Mexico to sanctuary churches across the U. S. , raise money to bond people out of detention, facilitate legal representation, and organize public education campaigns to raise awareness about U. S. involvement in Central American civil wars.

“Sanctuary Trials”

A ten-month investigation conducted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Anti-Smuggling Unit into the Sanctuary Movement and what they referred to pejoratively as the “so-called underground railroad” results in the indictment of religious leaders for violating numerous federal immigration laws. At the trial, the court forbids the defendants from referring to the atrocities in Central America, U. S. foreign policy, international law regarding refugees, bias in the asylum process, or even the defendants’ religious beliefs.

May 1985: American Baptist Churches (ABC) v. Thornburgh

Following the Sanctuary Trials, a coalition of religious, legal assistance, and human rights organizations — including the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild — file a class action lawsuit against INS, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, and the Department of State. Plaintiffs argue that Central American refugees were discriminated against in asylum seeking processes in direct violation of the Refugee Act of 1980.

July 28: Oakland passes City of Refuge Resolution

The mayor and city council declare Oakland a “City of Refuge, ” stating that the city will not cooperate with INS investigations (within legal limits), will not prosecute anyone giving sanctuary to refugees, and will facilitate access to support services for refugees being held in Oakland City Jail.

March 5: EBSC appeals to sanctuary congregations to take a more active role in opposing U. S. aid which is financing the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala

In the letter, EBSC writes: “In El Salvador, the U. S. has spent over three billion since 1980. According to a congressional study, more than two-thirds of this money has gone to wage war. This aid has not ended the war or helped establish democracy; in fact, in the last year, both the level of fighting and the number of human rights abuses increased sharply… the U. S. aid has enabled the wealthy elite and armed forces to continue the war and ignore the legitimate aspirations of the majority of the population.”

November 16: Six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her 16-year-old daughter are murdered in El Salvador

As modern-day martyrs in one of the most high-profile religious crimes in recent Latin American history, the murders draw the world’s attention to the crisis in El Salvador. Following the atrocities, Congress faces mounting pressure to end American support of the brutal military regime.

December 19: Landmark ABC lawsuit is settled

After five years, the ABC lawsuit is settled, establishing Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans and a path for residency for Salvadorans and Guatemalans, as well as other benefits.

Peace Accords are signed in El Salvador but do not end violence and instability

The peace agreements lead to the formation of an underfunded national police force and the beginning of a fragile democracy in El Salvador. The ARENA Party, founded by torturer and death-squad leader Colonel Roberto D’Aubuisson, wins the elections, ensuring that the military maintains its hold on power.

U.S. begins deporting gang members with disastrous consequences

Without support and social services, some young Central American refugees settle in violent, segregated neighborhoods and gravitate toward gangs for protection and camaraderie. Two international gangs— MS-13 and Barrio 18—are founded in Los Angeles. Between 1993 and 2005, the U. S. deports more than 50,000 people with criminal records back to Central America, effectively transplanting U.S.-founded gangs to an already war-torn and unstable region. The governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have no re-integration policy or support programs; they enlist the gangs and use them to cover their own corrupt activities. The gangs grow, laying the groundwork for the current conditions that are forcing people to flee for their lives.

The stories continue…

This timeline includes only some events that contributed to destabilization in Central America and caused a mass exodus of people leaving their homes to seek safety in the U. S. Human rights abuses happen globally, sometimes with U.S. government support. Today, the Sanctuary Movement continues to grow; bringing together people of conscience to speak out against immoral policies and human rights violations and provide safety to those fleeing persecution and violence. We encourage everyone to learn more about the U.S.’s role in fomenting violence in Central America and its disastrous and ongoing consequences. We hope this will allow for more compassion for those who are harmed by these policies.

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