A former Tempe peace activist has compiled a narrative history on efforts by Valley churches, pastors and others to help refugees from Central America during two decades when revolution and repression brought upheaval to their countries.
Margery Leach, now of Gloucester, Mass., has written "Sanctuary in Phoenix: A Narrative History of the Valley Religious Task Force on Central America and Its Role in the Sanctuary Movement in Phoenix, Arizona From 1981-1998." The 40-page book documents how a coalition of people from faith communities and other peace groups developed strategies that challenged U.S. policy and enforcement by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE). Church leaders insisted the undocumented migrants were political refugees seeking safety. In addition, churches took the INS to court for sending agents undercover into churches to monitor activities.
The task force's stated purpose was to "aid Central American refugees in Arizona and to meet their physical, psychological, legal and religious needs and to advocate a change in any policies, governmental or otherwise, which contribute to their plight." During 1982-92, about 500 U.S. churches teamed to find shelter and protection for refugees to the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries.
By January 1986, 11 denominations were represented in the task force. "Thousands of fugitives from intolerable lives were being assisted through four programs," Leach wrote. They were the Central American Refugee Project; the Central American Bureau of Information and Outreach, or CAMBIO; Sanctuary; and Todos Juntos. In one year, they were able to help 424 refugees, including 233 Salvadorans, 132 Guatemalans, 18 Hondurans and 18 Nicaraguans. Also in a year, they posted bond for 53 refugees at a cost of $63,000. "When the religious community succeeded in raising large sums of bond money, government bond figures rose, in some instances tripling," she said.
A series of denials of asylum by the INS, as well as the pursuit of refugees into churches and church meetings, brought pastors to the point of publicly declaring religious properties as sanctuaries, she said. Leach cited "heartbreaking accounts of people, even youths, bearing scars of torture and bullet wounds" who could not convince immigration officials to grant asylum. In response, she said some church leaders became more demonstrative in their public acts of defiance and found refugees willing to tell their stories to the media at the same time that churches were declared sanctuaries.
The Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson had set the tone with a letter in 1980 to then-U.S. Attorney General William French Smith calling U.S. policy toward Central American refugees "illegal and immoral" and in violation of the 1980 Refugee Act "by continuing to arrest, detain and forcibly return refugees to the terror, persecution and murder in El Salvador and Guatemala." Fife was one of 16 Sanctuary workers indicted in January 1985 by a grand jury, of which 11 stood trial. Following six months of testimony, eight, including Fife, were convicted on 18 counts, and all were given probation.
Leach shared court testimony of Sister Darlene Nicgorski, who fled Guatemala with four other nuns, after a priest and his driver were fatally shot in their car after Mass. Nicgorski told the court about refugee camps in Central America and related how 51,000 civilians had died or had disappeared. She said what she saw called out to her, as a woman of faith, to help.
The book also explores the task force's help to refugees from Cuba and Chiapas province in southern Mexico and the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the indigenous people of the region. Starting in 1995, the Pastors for Peace organized the transport of humanitarian aid to Mexico and Central America. Leach made several trips to Mexico as a Task Force eyewitness as part of the International Observers Commission team to Chiapas, which sought to monitor military abuses.
The Valley Religious Task Force ceased in 1998. Other justice groups were formed to take up pieces of immigration issues, among them the Arizona Institute for Peace Education and Research, or AIPER, (1998) and the Asylum Program of Southern Arizona (1999) and No More Deaths in 2004.
"The valiant work of the Task Force and other Sanctuary organizations of the 1980s lives on in these later organizations committed to relieving the despair of others," said Leach.