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Today, I am participating in an event at my university about supporting immigrants against Trump’s racist and fascist immigration regime. In preparing for it, I thought this piece on the sanctuary movement of the 1980s and its relevance today was quite useful and important.

In Guatemala, the decades-long civil war would eventually claim 200,000 lives, with state forces responsible for 93 percent of the violence, according to a UN report; in El Salvador, 75,000 were killed, with state forces responsible of at least 85 percent of the crimes. The Reagan administration also covertly and illegally armed and supported paramilitary “contra” forces against the Sandinista government, financing this illicit venture through clandestine arms deals with Iran.

As these anti-communist proxy wars ravaged Central America, a massive grassroots response arose in the United States.

This movement, sometimes referred to as the Central America solidarity movement or the Central America peace movement, encompassed a vast and diverse amalgamation of organizations and tactics fighting to halt U.S. support for the wars, defend the revolutionary projects of Central American popular movements, and protect Central American refugees seeking a safe haven in the United States.

As part of the movement, activists traveled to Sandinista Nicaragua under siege from the contras, indigenous communities facing genocidal violence in Guatemala, liberated guerilla territory in El Salvador, and Salvadoran refugee camps in Honduras to witness first-hand the collective organizing for social and economic justice so fiercely opposed by the “Free World” and to gather testimonies on the depredations of U.S. foreign policy. In the United States, they engaged in collective acts of civil disobedience, put their lives on the line in courageous direct actions, waged national political campaigns, provided aid and services for victims of the violence, and organized mass mobilizations.

As an array of forces again raise the mantel of “sanctuary,” it’s important to remember that the sanctuary movement of the 1980s was but one component of a broad-based, cross-border, anti-imperialist liberation struggle. This is the radical heritage that our organized responses to mass deportations, refugee bans, and imperialist wars must claim today.

There are of course critical differences between the sanctuary movement then and now, the most important of which is that the movements of the 80s were closely connected to particularly awful Central American governments. Those governments aren’t that great today, but protecting people from Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Napoleon Duarte gave very concrete targets because of their relationship to Reagan’s horrendous Central American policies that the drug wars don’t. That said, breaking the law to protect people’s rights to stay in this country is going to be absolutely necessary for resisting Trump’s whitening of America. I’m not entirely sure of quite what that should look like of course, but past movements ranging from the Underground Railroad to ACT-UP to the sanctuary movements of the 1980s provide real, concrete examples we can learn from. Because if we care about protecting our immigrant neighbors, that might mean hiding them in our houses, allowing them to stay in our churches, and shuttling them to Canada for their safety.

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  • CP

    No parallel to the psychopaths we supported in the Reagan years, but U.S. policy has in fact played quite a role in the growth of MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang in Central America, IIRC. And of course, America’s drug habit and its government’s response to them both have quite a bit to do with the drug-related messes south of the border.

    • Definitely. But it’s more difficult to create a solidarity movement in the US around these issues because it’s hard to pin it on one person and there’s certainly no revolutionary movements to support like in the 80s.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    1980s: sanctuary was about protecting poor latinos from murderous central american regimes.
    2010s: sanctuary was about protecting poor latinos from murderous central american regimes.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Who, reduced to the lowest common denominator, seem to be exactly the same.

  • I attended a launch event for a local Sanctuary Congregations movement yesterday, and I think you’re absolutely right that we need to be thinking sincerely about what will happen, and what each of us can do.

    There were lots of good things yesterday, but a few concrete things that this group of congregations were already doing in order of easiest to most challenging: holding “know your rights” meetings, setting up free legal service committees, going with community members to their ICE check ins and holding vigil until the people returned, and housing immigrants in the congregation. For some immigrant communities, one thing that was set up years ago is a network to take care of children if their parents don’t come home. Those sorts of networks are also good to plug into and help if possible.

    I will say, which I have before, that while ICE agents have been “unshackled” by this administration and things are getting worse, these raids and deportations have been happening from Bush and through Obama. A lot of this organizing has been done in immigrant communities, and there are networks to connect with.

    Lastly, anyone interested in this issue who doesn’t know of the amazing work No More Deaths has been doing on the border (http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/en/), I suggest you look them up.

  • Murc

    Most serendipitously, Fred Clark, who if he isn’t the most righteous man on the interwebs is definitely in the top ten, put up a post about the ancient religious, historical, and legal roots of the concept of “sanctuary” just two days ago.

    It’s very good.

    • Hogan

      I always think of that Charles Laughton/Maureen O’Hara scene when I hear the word.

      • N__B

        Me too, thanks to Pop__B’s dead-on impersonation of Laughton. Also his impersonation of a gargoyle.

  • Steve LaBonne

    My (UU) church is in the process of preparing to offer sanctuary to at least one family. Because we have long worked closely with the Immigrant Worker Project of Ohio, we have members of our congregation who are at risk of deportation. Not trying to help members of our own church family is just not an option.

    • That’s great to hear. There are too many churches (at least in my area) that have an English language service and a Spanish language service and the English part of the congregation doesn’t give enough thought to how these policies are affecting members of their church.

  • Bitter Scribe

    It’s amazing how we bloviate about “terrorists” today and ignore that, a short time ago, we funded and armed genuine, card-carrying terrorists. And that this was carried out by someone who conservatives think belongs on Mount Rushmore.

    • CP

      I’m confused. I’m not sure if you’re referring to all the support he gave to the looniest elements of the mujahideen in Afghanistan… or all the weapons he sold Iran.

      • Murc

        Neither. He’s referring, I think, the Salvadoran death squads.

        • CP

          Well, I was operating on the post-2001 mindset that one had to be a Muslim to be a terrorist.

          But you’re right, it could be that too. Although it could also have been a reference to Nicaragua’s harbor-mining nun-murdering community. It’s so hard to keep track with Reagan, isn’t it?

          • Bitter Scribe


            I originally had in mind both the Salvadoran death squads and the Somosistas. But his Middle East shenanigans were pretty terrorist-enabling too. You’re right. it’s hard to point at any single aspect of Reagan’s regime and say that was the most hypocritical.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      I think the threat of terrorism is vastly overrated, but there’s not really any inconsistency or hypocrisy in saying that you’re opposed to terrorist groups whose objectives are contrary to your national interests while having previously supported other terrorist groups whose objectives were at least somewhat aligned with your national interests.

      • CP

        Well, that’s the other (more serious) reason that I assumed the Middle Eastern guys were the ones he was referring to: even by the definition of “they’re terrorists, but at least they weren’t being terrorists to our side,” Reagan fails. Granted, with the mujahidin, you can say that they hadn’t turned against us yet, though it should’ve been clear already that there was a lot of potential for it. But with Iran, no such excuse.

        (There you also get into the question of whether it’s absurd to label as “terrorist” an entire state/regime – but by Reagan’s own definition, that was, in fact what Iran was).

      • BiloSagdiyev

        It’s not hypocrisy? After pounding the table and yelling TEERROISM BAD! We’ll never negotitate with terrorists! ME TOUCH GUY! … and then getting caught having done all sorts of pragmatic things?

        The base wasn’t being sold realpolitik, let’s say.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Damn, that would have been a better comment if I could proofread before hitting send. Dammit…

          “Me tough guy!” Then again, with the GOP’s wetsuit/dildo battallion, you never really know what they’re trying to tell you.

          • Dennis Orphen

            My laughter flows like incurable hiccups. Now I don’t want the edit button back, ever. Life’s too short not to smile. Or touch someone, including yourself, in ways suggestive or otherwise.

      • Colin Day

        But if the Somosistas and Duartistas were on our side, was does that say about our side?

        • cpinva

          “But if the Somosistas and Duartistas were on our side, was does that say about our side?”

          if you have to ask, you probably already know.

          • CP

            Not necessarily. Every conflict has included people who are objectively horrifying but that we have to work with in order to win the war. (Stalin in World War Two, “if Hitler invaded hell I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons,” being the ur-example).

            What’s worth keeping in mind is, 1) who exactly is this enemy-of-my-enemy who supposedly justifies this alliance and therefore 2) what are we fighting to stop and is it, in fact, actually bad enough to justify the alliance? South Africa is the best example of a bad example of this logic, where support for the apartheid regime was always defended in terms of “well, they stink, but they’re on our side and we need them to stop communism!” and then the regime went down, the ANC won, and it turned out that what came next wasn’t anything like the Black Stalinist regime we’d been warned about.

            Also related: “have you looked for other allies, have you done anything to minimize the dangers posed by this ally, or do you actually have your own reasons to want to work with monsters because, for various reasons, they’re more convenient to you than liberal democracies?”

      • Dennis Orphen

        The threat of terrorism is never overrated if your making a buck or two off of it.

    • Dennis Orphen

      I really do get tired of saying it. And I promise on my stack of Kamandis that I’ll stop when I hear it said back to me from someone other than from here because I’m trying to get a meme of ours out there:

      Every accusation is a confession.

      Ok. Thanks B.S. and V. R. (The originator, not the imitator!)

  • Stephen Reineccius

    99% Invisible just did a two part podcast on the Sanctuary movement and its contemporary echoes. I would highly recommend it.

  • cpinva

    during the second Reagan tour, I had occasion to audit a number of restaurants, most of whom employed many immigrants from the south. part of my job was to review the I-9’s, to ensure they were legit. many had such obviously bogus ID’s, I should, by law, have been on the phone to my mgmr., to have HQ contact Immigration. I said fuck it, I am not going to be the guy that sends them back to almost certain death. oddly enough, I never felt even a twinge of guilt.

    it wasn’t much, but I felt like I’d done a mitzvah.

    • Lt. Fred

      I applaud you, sir. If everyone did the same thing the world would be a better place.

  • Dennis Orphen

    Erik, when you’re taking sanctuary in a church, and the powers that be try to drive you out Noriega style, will they blast Florida/Georgia line?

    P.S. and OT: Prairie Trilogy coming soon, haven’t had much time to finish watching it. It’s heartbreaking in a very understated way. Although your actual mileage may vary, as it poignantly reminds me of the upper midwest Norwegian side of the family. In fact, it was through my Norwegian Mafia connections that the disc found its way to me. And of course, Charles Schultz is the Godfather, right down to the fact that we’re all in California now.

    • cpinva

      “Erik, when you’re taking sanctuary in a church, and the powers that be try to drive you out Noriega style, will they blast Florida/Georgia line?”

      are they trying to drive him out, or get him to drown himself in the baptismal font?

      • Dennis Orphen

        Christ on a bike, we better stop giving our enemies too many ideas. A few drops of catsup ought to help, but I don’t want to test that theory to failure. And don’t even think about vodka, standards go out the window in trying times. Although some Popov might work.

  • cpinva

    completely OT. my wife passed away this afternoon, after a six year fight with liver disease. she had decided to stop all treatment just a couple of days ago, and had been give a couple of weeks. they kept her pain free to the end, which came so fast I haven’t had time to really process it yet. I am in multiple states of shock, can only just barely speak above a whisper, and in a pain like I’ve never been in before. the selfish me is pissed that she left, the lover me is happy she’s no longer in pain.

    this, and a couple of other legal/political sites, have been what’s kept me semi-sane for some time now, and work, before I retired, so I thank you all for that.

    • Not OT at all. If you can, take whatever sanctuary comes your way, as long as you need it.

    • Hogan

      My arms are around you, my heart is with you. Be well.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      you have my sympathy

    • N__B

      I’m sorry for you both. Take care of yourself in the coming months.

    • Dennis Orphen

      What Hogan said, and while she may or may not be in a better place, it’s people like you who make this one a good place.

      “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

      -Samuel Beckett

  • Lt. Fred

    I am obligated to mention that Reagan financed his terrorist war of aggression with the Nicaraguan people only partly through illegal arms sales to Iran. He also helped them sell crack cocaine.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Probably essentially correct , but one quibble: the ‘crack’ part. That’s done here with baking soda and water.

      Bonus joke from D.O.:

      Why do the domicilically challenged prefer rock to powder?

      Did you ever try to do a line outside in the winter? The stuff just blows away!

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