Reflections on the Sanctuary Movement

Oscar Romero was canonized on October 14, 2018. His passion for justice touched (and continues to touch) people worldwide, including those seeking safety by navigating the US/Canada border

Four decades ago, widespread civil unrest engulfed Central America. Citing the Monroe Doctrine as authority, the United States had taken an intense interest in the troubles, supporting various conservative factions engaged in armed conflict throughout the region.

As terror took rein, large segments of the populace were caught in the crossfire. Fearing for their lives, refugees numbering in the tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes, then their countries. Many ultimately traveled to the United States seeking protection.

The state-supported paramilitary death squads involved in the violence committed against these innocent men, women, and children benefited from tacit American support. Complex political concerns led our government to oppose asylum claims filed by the Central American refugees. The US forcibly repatriated hundreds of innocent refugees to face imprisonment, rape and torture, and, often, death.

Then, on March 24, 1982 (the second anniversary of the assassination El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered for denouncing from the pulpit the evils of the death squads), a handful of clergy in Tucson, Berkeley, and Washington DC risked imprisonment by declaring sanctuary for political refugees from Central America. In courageous acts of civil disobedience, they barred government officials from entering their churches to arrest and deport the refugees seeking safety within.

Nearly 700 churches and synagogues across the country followed suit. The Sanctuary Movement awoke the nation’s conscience to the plight of the persecuted Central Americans.

Geography allowed Bellingham, the Northwestern Washington State community that is home to Cascadia Cross-Border Law, to play a unique role within the Sanctuary Movement. By the mid-1980s, in a bold move led by its then Minister of Immigration Lloyd Axworthy, Canada determined as a matter of independent foreign policy it would provide shelter to Central American refugees who could make it to its borders. People of good conscience from throughout our community rallied to the cause of El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and other Central Americans on the last legs of long journeys north to safety.

Many turned their homes into stops on a twentieth-century underground railroad, providing food, clothing, and shelter to the refugees. Their quiet acts of heroism coupled with Canada’s humanitarian asylum policies helped many find safety.

Even before his canonization Latin American church groups proclaimed Romero the unofficial patron saint of the Americas; they call him “San Romero.” Some involved with the Salvadorian underground railroad deem Axworthy to be “San Axworthy”.

Meanwhile, untold numbers of refugees owe their lives to the to the workers on the underground railroad, angels who drew inspiration from San Romero and San Axworthy.