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.