Thirty-five years ago, on March 24, 1982, a dozen people stood on the front porch of Southside Presbyterian church in Tucson and declared the unimposing building to be a sanctuary for Central American refugees. The event, witnessed by few other than the undercover agent secretly recording it, kicked off the original 1980’s sanctuary movement.

Today’s resurgent sanctuary movement, now on a collision course with the Trump administration, represents the triumph of that humble declaration.

Different from its earlier iteration, sanctuary today is more like the idealized form described by Quaker rancher-philosopher and 1980’s movement co-founder Jim Corbett. “Sanctuary in its broadest sense,” Corbett wrote, “extends far beyond Central America and specific human refugees to the need for harmonious community among all that lives.”

Sanctuary declared

In the late 1970s, people fleeing death squads and civil unrest in El Salvador and Guatemala began arriving at the border. U.S. authorities maintained the vast majority were economic migrants, not political refugees, and sent them back to their home countries. Subsequent investigations showed many deportees later turned up dead.

The only way for these refugees to get in was to sneak in, but that path was also perilous. In one notorious incident in July, 1980, 11 middle-class Salvadorans died of sunstroke in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument after being abandoned by a smuggler.

Jim Corbett, an arthritic, retired rancher and librarian, lived in Tucson with his wife Pat and a small menagerie of dogs, cats, goats, chickens, and a mule. After getting a call from a Quaker friend, wondering how to help a Salvadoran hitchhiker who’d been taken away at a Border Patrol checkpoint, Corbett decided he had to act.

Corbett knew the Arizona-Sonora region from his years as a rancher and itinerant goatherd. He began working with other locals, mostly church people, helping Salvadorans and Guatemalans cross the border in remote areas (where it was marked by a cattle fence, if anything), travel to churches and houses in Tucson, and from there to churches, monasteries, synagogues and other safe places around the country.

The group tried to operate in secrecy, but word got around quickly. The Border Patrol told them, “’We’ve been picking up aliens with Corbett’s number in their pocket,’” said John Fife, then pastor of Southside and another movement co-founder.

Hoping publicity would bring attention to their cause and help shield them from arrest, Fife, Corbett and several others came forward to announce that Southside church had become a sanctuary for Central American refugees. The event was held on the second anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.


“Today, in this church, human solidarity is out in the open and oppression is in hiding, waiting for another time without witnesses,” Corbett said.

Sanctuary on trial

The nascent sanctuary movement enjoyed a brief flurry of publicity, including profiles of Jim Corbett on 60 Minutes and in People magazine. But it was the Reagan years, and blatant flouting of the law would not be tolerated. After an extensive undercover investigation, including a wired informant recording meetings in churches, in January, 1985, the U.S. government indicted Corbett, Fife and 14 others on charges of smuggling, transporting and harboring illegal aliens.

Corbett had written several papers arguing that the Central Americans helped by sanctuary were political refugees with “a well-founded fear of persecution” who deserved protection under the Geneva Conventions. He contended the U.S. government was violating the law, and that sanctuary workers were committing “civil initiative” rather than civil disobedience. But the judge ruled such arguments inadmissible.

The trial, held in Tucson’s downtown federal courthouse, lasted six months. Central American witnesses were not allowed to tell any tales of torture or murder. The only relevant question, ruled the judge, was whether sanctuary workers had helped them “enter without inspection” and remain undetected in the United States. The jury, though sympathetic, convicted 8 of the 11 defendants on 18 counts of conspiracy, transporting, and harboring in May, 1986.

Corbett, who by then had taken a less active role, was not among the convicted. Fife, and the others who were, all received probation. While their convictions still stand, later court rulings vindicated the sanctuary movement by giving temporary protected status to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees and outlawing undercover recordings in churches.

After the trial, the Corbetts left Tucson to found a Quaker community, the Saguaro Juniper Project, 30 miles northwest of Benson near the San Pedro River. Jim died there in August, 2001, at age 67, of a rare, microscopic form of brain cancer. Pat and a few others continues to live on the land, fighting environmental degradation of the San Pedro Valley. Fife, retired as pastor of Southside, lives in Tucson and is still active in the immigrant rights movement.

Sanctuary revived

A lot has changed since the 1980s: Tucson is larger and more diverse, and community support for immigrants is more widespread. The old Southside church has been replaced by a big, adobe kiva, and is led by a female pastor, Alison Harrington.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Southside’s role as a leader in the sanctuary movement. In late January, 2017, after the Trump administration announced plans to crack down on immigrants, Harrington led a new declaration of sanctuary in the kiva. More than 100 individuals, representing 20 local congregations, pledged to shelter the undocumented.

The practice of sanctuary was actually revived under President Obama, after stepped up immigration enforcement intended to appease opponents of reform led to the deportation of more than five million during his two terms in office.

Many of these deportees turned out to otherwise law-abiding, undocumented people identified through traffic stops and other minor offenses. Pillars of their communities, successful businessmen, parents of young, U.S. citizen children, people who’d never lived in their country of origin, and even people who had served honorably in the U.S. military were sent packing.

Several churches around the country responded to these deportations by publicly sheltering people. A Mexican woman named Rosa Robles Loreto stayed in Southside Presbyterian, with 24/7 accompaniment, for 15 months in 2014 and 2015 before her case was resolved and she could leave the church without fear of arrest.

Paradoxically, the Obama-era deportations, and other anti-immigrant actions of the time — including Arizona’s SB 1070 “show your papers” law and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s neighborhood sweeps – served to expand public acceptance of the idea that undocumented people in general, and not just war refugees, may need and deserve sanctuary.

Sanctuary further grew into the “harmonious community” envisioned by Corbett during these years because scores of universities, cities, counties, states and other public and private entities pledged to protect everyone in their care from heavy-handed immigration enforcement.

Initially, these declarations of sanctuary were relatively inconsequential, because they were made after Obama embraced more immigrant-friendly policies in his second term. Under Trump, however, such pledges have taken on both political and legal liability.

Sanctuary everywhere

Since Trump took office, the fight over sanctuary has been joined. After the meeting at Southside in January, several Tucson churches quietly began housing migrants and refugees. Several private individuals also are sheltering folks in their homes, just as Jim and Pat Corbett did.

Today’s sanctuary is different not only in terms of who is eligible – i.e., all undocumented immigrants, not just refugees – but in terms of the political climate and the perceived willingness of the Trump administration to violate prior understandings.

In 2011, immigration authorities issued a directive to agents not to arrest people in “sensitive areas” such as churches, schools, and hospitals. But people are being arrested in these places, and others have been detained after leaving sanctuary. Understandably concerned for the safety of those in their care, churches providing sanctuary today are, for the most part, doing it secretly.

The widespread acceptance and practice of sanctuary by private individuals and groups represents one triumph of sanctuary. A bigger one has been the widespread refusal of local law enforcement to serve as immigration police.

An estimated 300 cities, towns, schools, states and other public and private entities nationwide have enacted sanctuary policies, which typically means local police do not ask the immigration status of people they encounter, and local jails do not hold people for immigration authorities without a warrant to do so.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has moved quickly to withhold federal funds from these places, and their leaders have fought back. In August, Chicago sued the Justice Department over the denial of federal funds. Suits have also been filed by Seattle, San Francisco, several smaller cities, and the state of California.

Two decisions so far have both gone in favor of sanctuary. In cases involving San Francisco and Chicago, federal courts issued injunctions temporarily preventing from the Justice Department from withholding funds from sanctuary cities.

In Texas, the showdown is between the state, which passed a law allowing prosecution of local officials who fail to cooperate with immigration authorities, and the city of Austin, as well as other local and regional governments, which have sued to stop the law from going into effect.

n late August, a federal judge in San Antonio agreed with the pro-sanctuary side and issued an injunction preventing the state from cracking down on sanctuary cities and towns.

With so many government agencies on so many levels successfully fighting and defying these federal edicts, the ideals and practice of sanctuary can truly be said to be abroad in the land.

–Sept. 15, 2017