When the Church Took on the Feds

When the Church Took on the Feds

US-border-immigration-humanitarians The Reverend John Fife, of Tuscon, Arizona, a member of the humanitarian group Samaritan watches the sun set at base camp adjacent to the Sonora Desert in Arizona.

SourceTim Sloan/Getty

Why you should care

Because U.S. immigration rules affect folks far beyond American borders.

Congregants gathered at the Rev. John Fife’s Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, in January 1982 for a general meeting. They had much bigger fish to fry than electing deacons or passing a budget, though — they were debating whether to engage in illegal activity. Within hours, the church members had voted by secret ballot to declare their house of worship a sanctuary — a move that would prevent the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from seizing and deporting asylum-seeking refugees crossing the border from Mexico.

In the early 1980s, thousands of Guatemalan and El Salvadoran citizens were being killed in civil wars, many targeted by death squads that were backed by governments supported by the U.S. government.

The INS caught wind of their work and warned they would be indicted if they continued shepherding undocumented immigrants.

“It was a very different border then,” says Fife, referring to the fact that what separated California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas from Mexico 34 years ago was not particularly physically imposing. The barbed-wire fences and military forces maintaining the border today are newer fixtures; in the early ’80s, it was possible for immigrants and refugees to cross with relative ease. Many ended up on Fife’s doorstep, sharing horrific stories of civil war, death squads and political resistance that spurred him and colleagues Jim Corbett, Jim Dudley and others to action. They started by providing immigrants with basic necessities, then soon moved on to offer legal help.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service advised Fife that the best option for gaining asylum for the refugees was to go to court. He and his colleagues got a grant and hired lawyers, but nearly a year later, none of the immigrants they were working with had been granted asylum. Fife blames Reagan’s agenda in El Salvador and Guatemala, noting how it quickly became clear that amnesty was not a possibility. The U.S. was aligned against the refugees in their home countries, and these allegiances, Fife asserts, were reflected in American courts. Without asylum, refugees faced deportation — a veritable death sentence for members of the resistance.

Coordinating with churches and human rights organizations in Central America, Fife and his colleagues determined who needed help the most and continued offering assistance to those coming in at the border. The INS caught wind of their work and warned they would be indicted if they persisted in shepherding undocumented immigrants. But continue they did, and indictments landed in 1981, with Fife, Corbett, a nun, two priests and six church workers charged with multiple crimes relating to smuggling undocumented migrants.

To continue helping those in need, they declared Southside Presbyterian a sanctuary — a long-standing religious tradition of providing asylum to refugees at risk of deportation to a country where they face grave danger. The ICE did not officially mandate that federal agents could not enter churches until 2011, but the concept of sanctuary has been upheld throughout U.S. history; and in 1982, that tradition turned into a movement.

Church-based rescue efforts took off in the months that followed, and the movement’s leaders, despite legal proceedings restricting their sanctuary work, used the media to further their cause, speaking out against the lack of political asylum for refugees. The trial resulted in eight of the 11 defendants being found guilty and sentenced to probation. To Fife’s delight, more than 270 churches and synagogues followed Southside’s lead and opened their doors to migrants, keeping thousands safe from deportation.

The movement is still going strong. Late last year, President Obama mandated that Central American immigrants who have previously been asked to leave the country be deported, and ICE began searching for undocumented citizens in early 2016, raiding neighborhoods across the country. But the sanctuary movement responded in kind, with at least 300 churches, according to Fife, offering asylum to those in need.

Churches, Fife says, can’t turn away those fleeing for their lives. Considering the dire struggles these refugees face, he insists that “faith communities are still acting appropriately: like faith communities.”

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