Sanctuary or Inclusivity: What should we call it?
Updated: Jan 2, 2019
Part 1: A historical perspective on the U.S. Sanctuary Movement’s origins through the eyes of a Salvadoran Civil War Refugee.
In 1977, El Salvador was a ticking time bomb. Social and political turmoil had brought the small pacific coast country with a population of 4 million people to the brink of civil war. The then-19 year old José Gutiérrez had a difficult decision to make: stay and risk falling victim to state-sanctioned violence, forced enlistment into the army, or flee the country.
So difficult was the decision in fact that his grandmother eventually made it for him. During the early morning of his departure through Guatemala, Mexico, and over the border into the United States, Dolores Gutiérrez said to her grandson “I’d prefer to know you’re alive far from me, than have you with me and find out you were captured, tortured, or disappeared.” That was the last time they saw one another.
40 years later José reflects on his experience as an undocumented teenager in Los Angeles in the late 1970s: “There were some Salvadoreños in L.A. when I arrived but most of us started coming when the war broke out.” He remembers arriving without work, minimal English, and no family or relatives to rely on, José recalls, “that’s when Mr. Henry Hirshkovitz (a Jewish businessman and real estate developer in the Fairfax District) gave me a place to stay, food, and a salary of $75/month in exchange for doing maintenance work in his buildings.” The Jewish community of West L.A. at the time offered many Central American refugees of war, including Guatemalans and displaced Hondurans, a chance to earn a living and, when possible, send money to relatives back home. “I will always appreciate the support I received from the Jewish Community.” He continues, “at the time there were many Holocaust survivors, and I talked to many of them. While their suffering was greater than mine, I knew by their stories that they understood what I was going through. They survived war, they survived torture. Many left their home with nothing.”
However, not everyone in Los Angeles felt the same empathy toward the steady wave of Central Americans who started pouring into the country illegally through the Mexico-U.S. border. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that between 1980 and 1990, the Salvadoran immigrant population in the United States increased by almost half a million.
The Department of Immigration and Naturalization Service or INS (since changed to Immigration's and Customs Enforcement — ICE) was known to round up immigrants while they were waiting at bus stops, while they assembled clothes in the city’s garment district, even while coming out of Dodger Stadium after a ballgame. The anti-immigrant sentiment was strong at the time and the media began portraying Salvadoran refugees with a uniformly broad stroke. José recounts, “once Reagan became president, we went from refugees to wetbacks, from victims to criminals, from peaceful to radical communists.”
Yet to his surprise the Fairfax District felt safe. However the need for employment and the desire to find other Central Americans compelled José to travel outside of that boundary into downtown Los Angeles.
“At that time you couldn’t speak Spanish outside of your apartment or at work. Passersby didn’t like it.”
José recalls the only safe place where he and others like him could ‘be Hispanic’ freely and without fear was in churches like Our Lady Queen of Angels in downtown’s La Placita Olvera or places like El Mercado in East Los Angeles.
Being raised Catholic, and having begun his organized activism back home through the tutelage of The Maryknoll Missionaries, José longed for that missing spiritual connection. Faith Ministries housed in Christian churches like those of La Placita Olvera and the Wilshire District provided a safe space for the thousands of refugees exiled due to the conflicts back home.
The Need for Sanctuary
Once in the U.S., the Salvadorans who sought official asylum as war refugees were denied their request. Because of the United States’ policy of economic and political intervention in Central America, granting asylum to refugees meant acknowledging the repercussions of their ongoing military operations in the region.
José shares “[a]t first we were considered economic refugees, but everyone knew the mass exodus was really about survival.”
Francisco López, a fellow Salvadoran immigrant who now lives in Salem, Oregon, shares context regarding the political limbo that immigrants found themselves in during that era.
Francisco, of Voz Hispana Cambio Communitario and a veteran of the immigrant’s rights movement, recalls when there were efforts to grant Central Americans refugee status at the federal level by Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini. However, churches, allies, and refugees themselves didn’t wait for the legislation to pass in order to take action.
Francisco remembers that “[t]he first marches occurred with what we in those days called the Sanctuary Movement,” he adds, “for a legalization of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees.”
The churches, which included both Catholic and Christian denominations, played a fundamental part in organizing immigrants and providing logistical support — all while allowing a displaced community to find cohesiveness in a faraway land.
The more progressive-leaning churches helped create refugee centers and day laborer sites. Some church members would go so far as hide and transport immigrants who were at risk of immediate deportation to safely reach relatives in other U.S. states.
Some refugees, with the aid of church members, made it so far as to reach asylum on Canadian soil. Francisco emphasizes that the church Sanctuary Movement “was really a challenge to the interventionist politics of Ronald Reagan in Central America, specifically El Salvador.”
Furthermore, Francisco adds, “In those days providing sanctuary was a public act of civil disobedience. It was much more than just saying ‘let’s defend refugees.’ It was much more than that. Many allies of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s were captured by the FBI and went to jail.” Other activists of the time didn’t face arrest but were slandered and hurled accusations by law enforcement agents.
The now deceased Father Luis Olivares of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church (known as ‘La Placita’) was a prime example. Father Olivares was once accused by a top INS official of ‘promoting lawlessness’ because he opened his parish’s doors to the refugees who were at the doorstep.
From Sanctuary to Solidarity
By the mid-1980s, the now-established Sanctuary Movement was flourishing and allowed for Central American refugees to develop their own leadership and organizations. Bolstered by the legalization of millions within the U.S. with the passage of the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act, an outgrowth of the Sanctuary Movement was the creation of a strong Solidarity Movement which provided economic resources, medicinal aid, and political support to Central Americans back home. José, once a member of CISPES(Committee in Solidarity with the Salvadoran People), shares, “we were not just marching here for legalization but we were organizing in support of the Salvadoran people who were suffering the atrocities of civil war.”
In the mid-1990s, after the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in Mexico put an end to the Salvadoran armed conflict, many Salvadorans transitioned from the Sanctuary/Solidarity Movement to movements of integration, immigration reform, and economic justice coalitions. José and Francisco both experienced this transition — José as a volunteer organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Francisco López as an activist-leader in various organizations advocating for national immigration reform.
Two Legends of the Movement
Fast forward 25 years. Now, at the age of 60, José Gutiérrez looks back at the gradual transition from ardent political activism to his original love: the social teachings of the Catholic Church. The seeds the Maryknoll Fathers of New York planted in the 1970s are now bearing fruit. In fact, 10 years ago José was ordained as a Permanent Deacon in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. Through all the years as an undocumented and documented immigrant here in the United States, José found inspiration, solace, and
“You cannot be witness to the human suffering and not be convinced of the existence of social sins. We are all responsible unless we take a stand and speak against it.”
– Father Luis Olivares†
This article is dedicated to the memory of Angel Alfredo Viera. Beloved son, friend, and musician of La Unión, El Salvador, C.A.