The Sanctuary Scam

Few issues in recent years have received more time and attention from liberal religious activists in the United States than the sanctuary movement. No issue has been the occasion for more public deception, confusion, and irresponsible rhetoric.

Sanctuary advocates would have the public believe that near-genocide is being committed against illegal immigrants returned to El Salvador. Gary MacEoin, the author of a book on sanctuary published in 1985, writes that deported Salvadorans meet “an uncertain fate: for some, a mercifully quick bullet in the brain; for others, mutilation, rape, and the drawn-out agony of torture.” That the Reagan Administration would continue a policy of deportations if such horrors were indeed befalling deported Salvadorans does not surprise sanctuary movement leaders. In a June, 1985 newsletter of Seattle’s University Baptist Church, Jim Corbett, a leader of the sanctuary movement in Arizona, referred to the Reagan Administration as “a government that commits crimes against humanity (and therefore) forfeits its claims to legitimacy.” He also described U.S. aid to El Salvador as “the Pentagon’s final solution to the Third World Problem.”

In fact, nothing remotely like genocide is occurring in El Salvador. In the absence of evidence for it, sanctuary advocates should be required to explain why Salvadorans or Guatemalans ought to receive different treatment under American immigration law than Nicaraguans, Haitians, Cubans, Peruvians, etc. This they have never done — which indicates another problem with the sanctuary movement.

Sanctuary advocates tend to be one-issue moralists: they think and behave as if there were one, and only one, dimension to social and political problems, and they give that dimension absolute value. Yet moral and political problems are usually problems precisely because they involve numerous, competing, and valid demands, not all of which can be satisfied simultaneously; several different solutions are often possible, and none is perfect. If immigration were not regulated and the United States had an open borders policy, there would be no sanctuary problem. The fact is the overwhelming majority of Americans today supports regulated, limited immigration. Once this is accepted, a moral problem arises. The United States annually admits only a small fraction of the world’s total number of refugees. To control immigration is unquestionably to commit, in a certain sense, an inhumane act. This is done, however, not because the United States wishes to be cruel or inhumane to foreigners. Immigration is restricted because other conflicting ideals also concern Americans: reducing the U.S.’s own excessive unemployment, especially in cities and among minority youth; alleviating housing shortages for low-income people; avoiding added strains on social service agencies and funds; perhaps even ensuring a minimal cultural and political cohesion in a nation already highly diverse and politically fractious. One would expect sanctuary advocates to address some of these concerns in proposing the removal of barriers to immigration from El Salvador and Guatemala on humanitarian grounds. Remarkably, they almost never do.

Nobody would argue that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) bureaucrats don’t make mistakes in evaluating claims for asylum or that American immigration policy and practices are beyond reform. Nobody would deny that a mistaken judgment with respect to an asylum applicant from any one of a score of countries around the world could in effect be a sentence of death. The INS and State Department officials who review asylum claims, like surgeons or commercial airline pilots, are in a business in which mistakes can have tragic consequences.

It was clearly a mistake and a violation of due process to return the Soviet sailor Miroslav Medvid to his ship in New Orleans last November. In 1984, the Coast Guard intercepted 2,501 Haitians at sea and returned them to Haiti. Among those thousands there may well have been some who suffered violence or persecution from Haitian authorities after their forcible return. A number of Cubans who came to the U.S. in the “Marielito” wave of 1980 were returned involuntarily to Cuba in 1985, despite concerns raised over what treatment awaited them upon their return. One might have expected leaders in the sanctuary movement to take up the defense of Medvid, the Haitian boat people, or Marielito Cubans — as well as Salvadorans and Guatemalans. None ever did. Their concern is exclusively for the latter.

It may be that there is a flaw in our immigration policies if, when there is a sudden and dramatic outbreak of violence such as occurred in El Salvador and Guatemala in the early eighties, a moratorium on deportations to those countries is not enacted immediately. Today such a moratorium — known as extended voluntary departure (EVD) — for Salvadorans may still have merit. But if it has merit for Salvadorans, it surely also has merit for Nicaraguans, and it may also have merit for Haitians and Cubans.

But no sanctuary advocate has urged EVD for any nationalities other than Salvadorans and Guatemalans — despite the fact that conditions in other nations, especially Nicaragua are no less difficult than in sanctuary’s favored nations. Equally important, the sanctuary movement has never proposed clear criteria for deciding when the U.S. should grant EVD to illegal immigrants from countries in upheaval — although it frequently charges that past EVD decisions have been arbitrary or politically motivated.

Churches have traditionally been at the forefront of concern for refugees, and have articulated the principles that ought to underlie immigration law. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris stated, for example: “We publicly approve and commend every undertaking founded on the principles of human solidarity or Christian charity which aims at making the migration of persons from one country to another less painful.”

But it is important that church leaders, when advocating improvement or liberalization of immigration law, not only recognize that several, often competing, principles usually complicate the lawmaking task. They should also, especially, recognize the dangers posed to liberal immigration policies if proponents of reform become associated with narrowly political, tendentious, or partisan views. If advocacy of more liberal refugee and asylum policies comes to be associated with sympathy for communist guerrilla movements, all advocates of refugee and asylum law reform may suffer a loss of credibility and respect.

Unfortunately, the selectivity of the sanctuary movement, combined with the egregious falsehoods it promotes about U.S. “crimes” in Central America, raise serious doubts that it is more concerned with aiding Salvadoran refugees in the most effective way possible than with terminating aid to the Duarte government. Suspicion that refugee concerns are not uppermost in the minds of sanctuary advocates arises, for example, from their silence on the question of aid to so-called displaced persons within El Salvador.

One might expect the sanctuary movement, in addition to advocating an end to deportations of Salvadorans, also to propose greater assistance to those within El Salvador, estimated to number about half a million, who have fled the conflict zones, leaving behind their homes and livelihoods. These displaced persons live in either refugee camps or makeshift shelters by a roadside or in the outskirts of a city. Many of them undertake the long, expensive, and sometimes dangerous trip to the United States primarily because they lack so many of life’s necessities in El Salvador — proper shelter, medical care, education for their children, and employment opportunities. The cost of providing assistance to such displaced persons would be much lower in El Salvador than in the U.S., and such assistance would also address Salvadoran refugee needs where they are in fact most immediate — perhaps eliminating for many the need to emigrate.

The sanctuary movement, however, has never seemed interested in encouraging more assistance for the displaced persons in El Salvador. Having suggested to the American public that Auschwitz-like conditions prevail there, sanctuary leaders can scarcely, one supposes, urge Americans to send CARE packages to the inmates. Instead, sanctuary advocates talk only about the deportation issue, and insist that preventing deportations of Salvadorans is the moral imperative. (The very term “deportation” has, of course, enormous political utility for a movement that likes to portray the U.S. government as fascist or Nazi-like.) A January, 1986 fund-raising letter of the National Sanctuary Defense Fund, for example, showed the photo of a small child, his face partly hidden by a handkerchief (presumably to protect his identity) and suggested that the Fund’s work, if supported, would help protect such children from being sent “away to near certain torture or death.” It is worth contemplating for a moment the seriousness of such a charge, made by a church-related movement in a mailing to 1.3 million Americans.

In the course of giving “sanctuary” to Salvadorans and Guatemalans, the movement also provides shelter, food, clothing, and medical care. But this aspect of the sanctuary movement — although it is often the most visible — does not reflect its essence. Few congregations and no cities have actually resolved to assist individual Salvadorans and Guatemalans or to harbor illegal immigrants and thus defy federal law. (The number of individuals designated as being “in sanctuary” or receiving assistance from sanctuary churches is in the hundreds.) The bulk of sanctuary activity consists of holding public meetings and study sessions on the issue, preparing reports, and debating resolutions of support for the movement. Far more time and resources are invested in the publicity and advocacy aspects of sanctuary — which a pending sanctuary resolution can either require or excuse — than in providing practical assistance to individual Salvadorans residing in this country. (The resolutions typically state or imply that deportation of Salvadorans or Guatemalans is a moral crime, and call for an end to such deportations; most resolutions also encourage individuals not to help Federal authorities enforce immigration law.)

This intense publicity that surrounds each event in the sanctuary movement is perhaps the first clue to the political dimensions of the sanctuary issue. Sanctuary advocates are assiduous in seeking opportunities to present their case to the public. The agreement by a church, city council, or university student association to consider the issue, in whatever manner, provides the needed pretext for a wide array of programs in “public education”: public meetings, television and radio programs, and articles in the local press.

Herein lies the power of the sanctuary movement. With its moving symbolism and deeply disturbing allegations, it appeals powerfully to ordinary Americans who might otherwise show little interest in a remote and little known country in Central America. It also holds an irresistible allure for the press, which invariably portrays sanctuary leaders as profoundly humanitarian, even courageous, individuals prepared to risk jail in order to prevent the torture or death of the defenseless Salvadoran or Guatemalan immigrants whom the INS would like to deport. In fact, symbol and reality are almost wholly divorced. Upon closer analysis, there is little truth to the fundamental claims of the sanctuary movement. One is forced to look elsewhere for an explanation of the phenomenon.

The Politics of Sanctuary

In principle, a purely humanitarian concern for the plight of Salvadorans suffering the effects of civil war ought to be independent of attitudes toward their government, the guerrillas, or U.S. foreign policy. Also, there is no inherent reason why pleading the cause of the Salvadoran refugees need be associated with opposition to military aid to the Duarte government. A good case can be made that the provision of U.S. military aid, conditioned upon improvements in the human rights situation, were a critical factor in reducing the death-squad activity and abuses of civilians by army personnel that were partly responsible for the refugee flows from El Salvador. Further, in view of the massive flow of refugees after communist forces have come to power in various nations in the past forty years, a concern for refugee problems might very reasonably lead one to favor, not oppose, military aid to the Duarte government — precisely in order to avoid the greater refugee problems that a guerrilla victory might create.

But none of the leaders of the sanctuary movement supports American military aid to the government of El Salvador. Very few, if any, are even neutral on the subject. In the myriad meetings and public forums that spring from the sanctuary movement, its advocates press a standard and uniform array of political charges. The U.S. is held to be indirectly responsible for massive human rights abuses being committed by our ally, the government of El Salvador. Guerrilla violence is either ignored or, if mentioned, treated gently, in a spirit of understanding.

To demonstrate that the U.S. government is guilty of a callous unconcern for the conditions in El Salvador and Guatemala, for example, the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America (CRTFCA), the major national coordinating body for the sanctuary movement, cited Amnesty International in asserting that “as of August 1982 . . . 30 percent of all refugees forcibly returned to El Salvador from the U.S. and Mexico have been tortured, maimed or murdered upon their return.”

This was a devastating charge. In the two years 1980-81, the United States deported over 19,000 Salvadorans. (The annual deportation rates have declined since the early eighties, but remain in the thousands.) If the 30 percent figure were accurate, then the United States deported approximately 5,700 Salvadorans to the fate of torture, maiming, or murder.

In this instance, however, the propensity to make reckless allegations prompted an embarrassing correction. Amnesty International publicly refuted the 30 percent figure attributed to it by the Chicago Religious Task Force, stating in a letter dated June 23, 1983: “for the record, none of the facts or figures attributed to Amnesty International . . . by the Chicago Religious Task Force are accurate.”

Sanctuary advocates also accuse the INS and State Department of being discriminatory, or political, in the way they decide asylum claims. They allege that the Administration abuses asylum policy by subordinating it to foreign policy consideration. In other words, it is said, the administration grants very few petitions for asylum from subjects of anticommunist governments allied to us, in order not lo embarrass those governments, and for the opposite reason, it is very liberal in granting asylum requests to subjects of our communist adversaries. In a pastoral letter issued January 24, 1983, Seattle’s Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen stated: “The Immigration and Naturalization Services [sic] have chosen to deny these innocent victims refuge. It is my judgment that one of their reasons for doing so is that they find it politically embarrassing to admit that the governments which the United States supports cannot protect their citizens from violence.”

In making such charges, sanctuary advocates plow ground made fertile by the Vietnam War and Watergate. Since the late sixties and seventies, it has become almost de rigueur among religious liberals and members of the American left to accuse American government officials of routinely lying and countenancing gross human rights abuses by governments allied to us. It was once commonplace to hear Americans accuse communist governments of these crimes; today it has become commonplace to hear Americans accuse their own government of them. Among such voices are those who speak for the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, which issued a lengthy mimeograph in December, 1984.

The CRTFCA’s “Statement of Faith” pronounced its “rage” over the “mass slaughter” occurring in El Salvador and Guatemala “with the assistance and instigation of our government.” It expressed concern that, among certain religious communities, attacks on American aid to El Salvador were not receiving enough emphasis. “Some congregations,” the statement complained,

receive a refugee and then become increasingly involved in social service to refugees rather than experiencing some conversion bringing them to oppose the war and its causes . . . some churches have declared themselves sanctuary and have done almost nothing to oppose U.S. military aid to Central America. We question whether this is adequate . . .

In other words, religious communities in the U.S. could not simply work on behalf of refugees from Central America and think they were fulfilling their religious duties. True Christianity was to be found in “effective solidarity with the people of Central America”:

To stand in solidarity with the Central American poor struggling for freedom does not necessarily mean sending them guns. Such a way may be beyond our range of expertise and responsibility. But it does mean stopping the flow of U.S. arms that are used to massacre the people … Sanctuary at once serves to give direct assistance to some refugees, to work for change in unjust immigration policies and practices, and to stop U.S. intervention in Central America.

Ignoring the possibility that disarming only one party in an armed conflict might lead to its massacre by the other party, the “Statement of Faith” spelled out the type of political education required to stop U.S. intervention in Central America:

The sanctuary movement seeks to uncover and name the connections between the U.S. government and the Salvadoran death squads and the connection between U.S. business interests and the denial of human and economic rights of the vast majority of people. We believe that to stop short of this is to betray the Central American people and the refugees we now harbor.

Addressing criticism that the sanctuary movement was political and supported “specific revolutionary groups,” the CRTFCA denied this to be the case, albeit in somewhat ambiguous language. It nevertheless stressed that the sanctuary movement “does commit to defending justice . . . and that might mean opposing certain unjust acts or policies of specific organizations or bodies, e.g. death squads, military forces, governments.” Absent, of course, from the examples of sources of “unjust acts” was any reference to the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador.

The statements of the CRTFCA are one important source of insight into the foreign policy objectives of sanctuary organizers. Further clues are provided by the CRTFCA’s close ties and cooperation with the Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador (CISPES), the American front organization for the guerrillas in El Salvador.

CISPES was formed in October, 1980 and is frank about its goals. Its brochure states that it works

to prevent U.S. intervention in the region and to build support for the broad political-military opposition in El Salvador, the FMLN/FDR (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front/Democratic Revolutionary Front), which represents the Salvadoran people’s struggle for self-determination.

There is evidence that a trip by Farid Handal to the U.S. in early 1980 (organized in part by the Communist Party USA) helped launch CISPES. Handal is a Salvadoran, believed to be of Palestinian descent. His brother Shafik is secretary general of the Communist Party of El Salvador. Political support for CISPES has come from a number of radical international organizations, including the PLO.

On CISPES’s steering committee, besides the U.S. Peace Council (affiliated with the Soviet-controlled World Peace Council), are three church-based organizations, all deeply involved in the sanctuary movement. The Ecumenical Program for Inter-American Communication and Action (EPICA) describes itself as an advisory group to the Commission on the Caribbean and Latin America of the National Council of Churches; its director is Rev. Philip Wheaton. Wheaton has served with CIA defector Philip Agee as a contributing editor to Counterspy Magazine, which publishes “exposes” of individuals it alleges to be Western intelligence agents. The Interreligious Task Force, an ecumenical group housed in the National Council of Churches, in its materials describes the FDR as the “chosen” leadership of the people of El Salvador, “committed to the establishment of a democratic, pluralist government.” The third religious group on CISPES’s steering committee is the

Religious Task Force on El Salvador (RTFES); an ad hoc Catholic group that counts among its directors Thomas Quigley, staff member for the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Commission on International Justice and Peace. A December, 1980 issue of the RTFES newsletter, Report on El Salvador, described the Marxist FDR as “the broadest expression of the Salvadoran people’s interest.”

CISPES has regularly supported and given publicity to the sanctuary movement’s activities, and many sanctuary leaders have cooperated with CISPES. The group was a major organizer of the First Mexico-U.S. Border Conference in Solidarity with El Salvador in October, 1982 in Tijuana, which called for continuing political work on behalf of the guerrillas in El Salvador as well as activity on the Salvadoran deportation issue. The Mexico-U.S. Border Conference made a commitment “to adopt as our own the proposals of the FMLN-FDR and to work to advance them” in view of the fact that “the only political solution possible in El Salvador is that put forward by the FMLN-FDR.” The conference adopted two resolutions. One called for the strengthening of “solidarity work” between organizations in the U.S. and south of the border. The other called for “coordinated joint work to provide a militant response to the serious problem of Central American refugees.”

That a front organization for the FMLN-FDR should favor efforts to stop the deportations of Salvadorans is not surprising; most Salvadorans favor a very liberal U.S. immigration policy toward their nation. President Duarte as well as El Salvador’s Archbishop, Msgr. Rivera y Damas, has issued statements against the U.S. practice of deporting illegal Salvadoran immigrants. In a March, 1985 Spanish International Television poll, two-thirds of all Salvadorans polled said they would emigrate to the United States if given the opportunity to do so. Who can blame them? The civil war that broke out in their nation in 1979 drove unemployment from a rate below 5 percent in 1978 to above 30 percent in 1983 — not to mention the direct suffering caused by the violence and terrorism. There is little question that the plight of many Salvadorans would be eased if they could immigrate freely to this country.

At the same time, little attention has been given to the substantial reduction in civilian violence and terrorism in El Salvador since the early eighties, when the greatest number of deaths attributed to political violence occurred. From 9,000 in 1980, the civilian death toll declined to 2,628 in 1982, to 771 in 1984, and to 335 in 1985. Moreover, the Salvadoran left appears today to be the major source of violence directed at non-combatants.

Such assessments, of course, are controversial. Groups such as Americas Watch routinely challenge figures issued by the U.S. embassy and assert that the State Department both underestimates the level of violence and assigns disproportionate responsibility for it to the guerrillas. Sanctuary advocates, however, are reluctant to acknowledge the sharp decline in violence against civilian non-combatants, much less give the Duarte government or U.S. foreign policy any credit for it.

If there are some important realities about El Salvador seldom heard from sanctuary advocates, likewise there are facts about U.S. immigration policy they seldom reveal. Broadly speaking, besides such obvious causes as family reunification and natural disasters, three different sets of circumstances

Circumstances generate emigration: poverty and unemployment, warfare and political upheaval, and persecution. The term “refugee” technically does not apply to those leaving their country for economic reasons. For those in the second category, fleeing warfare or political upheaval, the United States has historically either passed special refugee acts (as for Cubans and Southeast Asians) or it has granted them “extended voluntary departure” status. This is conceived to be a measure both extraordinary and temporary in nature. Technically, only persons in the third category, those fleeing persecution, are “refugees.” Our asylum laws are intended to apply only to persons in this category, as defined by the Refugee Act of 1980. The act defined a refugee as

any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality . . . who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion . . .

In common usage, however, the term refugee is used to denote both those fleeing persecution and those fleeing conditions of civil war and social upheaval. By this definition, the number of refugees in need of protection and assistance worldwide in 1985, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, was 10.3 million. Afghanistan alone accounted for 3.6 million and African countries for 3.4 million. In Central America, four nations — El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti — were principal sources of refugees.

The United States today has one of the most generous and least biased immigration and refugee policies in the world. With approximately five percent of the world’s population, we account for over half of total world immigration. Between one-quarter and one-half of our annual population growth results from immigration. In terms of support for international refugee relief agencies, the United States contributed $270 million in 1983 — the largest dollar amount for any nation —;but ranked sixth (behind the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and Canada) in terms of per capita contributions to international refugee agencies. If bilateral aid and sums spent on resettlement of refugees in the U.S. were counted, as well as private American contributions through church and other refugee service agencies, the American response to world refugee needs would probably rank higher. The Federal government, for example, spent $2.3 billion in 1982 on refugee resettlement within the U.S. and other “entrant” assistance programs. (The Soviet Union contributes nothing to international refugee relief agencies, arguing that refugee problems are a product of imperialism and the wars it generates and not the responsibility of socialist societies.) In terms of our resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees, the United States again ranks first in absolute numbers, but third, after Australia and Canada, when measured on a per capita basis.

The figures on Southeast Asian refugees point to another important fact about immigration to the U.S. Whereas immigration flows were once predominantly from northern Europe, and our immigration laws were indeed discriminatory, numerous reforms — most recently the Immigration Act of 1965 — fundamentally modified the system that had favored northern Europeans, and opened the nation to large-scale immigration from the Third World. As a result, the Third World today accounts for well over half of our annual immigration, a fact which should give pause to those who persist in calling American immigration law racist.

In fiscal 1985 70,000 refugees were admitted to the United States, in addition to 430,000 immigrants who entered the United States under regular immigration procedures. The U.S. issued over 20,000 visitors’ visas and over 8,000 immigrant visas to Salvadorans last year, in addition to approving 328 applications for political asylum. In absolute numbers, only three other countries (Iran, Poland, and Nicaragua) ranked higher in the number of nationals granted political asylum.

For applicants whose claims for political asylum are denied, an elaborate three-tiered appeals system exists. The appeal process can take up to three years and involves, at the higher stages, the federal courts, whose judges are appointed for life. These judges are free to decide cases on their merits and are not subject to pressure by an administration moved by foreign policy considerations. In numerous cases the federal courts have reversed decisions of the INS, or forced it to reform its procedures.

Also, legal expenses are not usually an obstacle when appealing for political asylum cases. Pro bono lawyers, many organized by the sanctuary movement, offer free legal aid to Salvadorans. The Salvadoran asylum applicant with the benefit of a pro bono attorney thus faces total legal costs, representing filing fees, of approximately $125. For that modest sum, the applicant can be virtually assured of nearly three years of legal residence in the United States.

Sanctuary’s Credibility Problems

The sanctuary movement appears to have a certain dynamic of its own. How else to explain the paradox that the sanctuary movement has grown at the same time that the violence and human rights abuses in El Salvador have declined? There is virtually no evidence, for example, that any of the 8,000-10,000 Salvadorans deported in the past two years suffered persecution upon their return. Yet numerous cities across the United States last year passed sanctuary resolutions.

The most comprehensive study of deported Salvadorans was done by the ACLU and was based on 8,500 Salvadorans deported between March, 1981 and March, 1983 — a period when the civil war was more intense and human rights violations were substantially higher than they are now. (The ACLU lamented that the study was incomplete: the 8,500 represented less than half of the total number of Salvadorans deported during the two-year period and may not have been a good sample. This study is nevertheless the best that the sanctuary movement has produced to date.) Of the 8,500 deportees studied, the ACLU found 25 cases of deaths, which had a “better-than-average” chance of being caused by death squad activity, military brutality, or guerrilla assassination. That represents less than one-third of 1 percent of the 8,500. It was a very far cry from “near certain persecution and death.”

Sanctuary advocates have made no comparable efforts since the ACLU study to determine the dimensions of the violence they allege faces deported Salvadorans — perhaps because speculation about its extent serves better than real knowledge. At a presentation made to members of Seattle’s Jewish Community Relations Council in late February of this year, Rev. Donovan Cook, a national leader in the sanctuary movement and minister of Seattle’s University Baptist Church, was asked how many Salvadorans had been deported to El Salvador in 1984 and 1985 and of that number how many were known to have been tortured, kidnapped, killed, or otherwise injured after being deported. Rev. Cook refused to answer either question but averred, when pressed, that even if the number were only one or a few, this was grounds enough for suspending deportations.

To imply that the number of deported victims of political violence in El Salvador might be on the order of one or a few is a major retreat from the normal public rhetoric of the sanctuary movement’s leaders. In fact, however, sanctuary advocates often appear to trim their rhetoric to Suit the audience. In a statement submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration April 22, 1985, the ACLU argued conservatively that the U.S. must cease deporting Salvadorans because conditions of war and insurgency in their country pose some risk to their lives. Said the ACLU:

The Administration argues that there is no evidence that these Salvadorans have been persecuted upon their return because they had been deported from the United States. This is a red herring. The issue is not whether these persons were targeted or persecuted because they had been deported. The issues are whether present conditions in El Salvador make such harm possible, and whether it is unconscionable to send Salvadorans back even if the deportee faces no greater dangers than those faced by persons who never left El Salvador.

When sanctuary advocates argue this way, they raise a new set of questions. If the simple fact of civil war and political violence in a nation is the justification for granting special immigration privileges to particular nationalities, why don’t sanctuary advocates talk about other countries? Why only Salvadorans and Guatemalans, and not Nicaraguans, Lebanese, Haitians, Zimbabweans, Filipinos, Peruvians, or Tamils?

Just as allegations of near-genocidal conditions in El Salvador prove wholly false when investigated, so also are claims that the government grants asylum applications to correspond to its foreign policy tilt contradicted by facts that sanctuary advocates themselves know but rarely acknowledge — unless challenged to do so in open debate. Pro-sanctuary speakers tirelessly repeat the fact that “only” 3 percent of Salvadorans who filed for political asylum in 1984 were successful in their claims, while the success rate for Poles, for example, was 33 percent — as if simply stating these facts proves that the U.S. government’s asylum practices are politically skewed. They fail to point out, however, that attorneys in the sanctuary movement routinely counsel illegal Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants who have been apprehended to file for asylum — as a delaying measure, regardless of the merits of their claims. The attorneys do not do this for illegal immigrants of other nationalities. Obviously, such tactics drive the number of Salvadoran and Guatemalan applications to levels higher than they would otherwise be and cause the percentages of their approved claims to appear relatively low.

It is also characteristic of sanctuary advocates not to volunteer the information that in 1984, for example, 25 percent of the claims for political asylum from citizens of the Philippines were granted. If asylum grants are kept low in cases where they might embarrass our allies, wasn’t this an embarrassingly high rate of successful asylum applications from subjects of President Marcos, an anticommunist and an ally of the U.S.?

On the same principle, how to explain that only 8 percent of Nicaraguan claims for asylum were granted in the first nine months of 1985? Would it not have behooved the Reagan Administration to “fix” the Nicaraguan rate at a politically embarrassing high level for the Sandinistas — say, 50 percent — to prove that Nicaragua is a “totalitarian dungeon”? Sanctuary advocates rarely answer these questions, just as they seldom show much concern for presenting facts in a proper context.

It is true that much fewer people have been deported back to Nicaragua than to El Salvador. But the principle still holds. To use the words of the ACLU, one cannot rule out that for a deported Nicaraguan “present conditions make some harm possible.” In a country of five million, approximately 2,000 Salvadorans died from war or political violence last year. Greater numbers died from civil war in Nicaragua, with a smaller population. Yet no church has ever offered sanctuary to a Nicaraguan. Why has the ACLU not extended its EVD advocacy to include Nicaraguans?

A Nicaraguan Humanitarian Coalition was formed in Miami in 1985 to plead the cause of the estimated 110,000 Nicaraguan refugees now living in the United States in a sort of legal limbo, undocumented and in chronic fear of arrest and deportation. Many of them fled Nicaragua to evade the draft (a motivation for emigration shared with many Salvadorans). Penalties for draft evasion in Nicaragua are severe and deportation, therefore, could have adverse effects on the individual deportee. Although few deportations have occurred, nothing prevents the INS at this time from arresting thousands of illegal Nicaraguan immigrants and sending them home. Yet no sanctuary organization has come to the defense of Nicaraguans, no clamor has been raised to grant extended voluntary departure to them, too. Within the church only the lone voice of Monsignor Bryan Walsh, executive director of the Catholic Community Services of the Archdiocese of Miami, has been raised on their behalf, without benefit of any “movement,” urging “the immediate announcement of an indefinite suspension of deportation to Nicaragua to relieve the anxiety of thousands of families.”


A balanced assessment of the sanctuary movement must distinguish between its leaders and its participants. Most of what has been said in the preceding pages applies to the former rather than the latter. It is undeniable that hundreds of Christians in sanctuary churches around the country have ignored the politics of sanctuary and simply given assistance to several hundred needy refugee families from El Salvador and Guatemala. Possibly sanctuary churches have prevented the deportation of some Salvadorans who would not have received asylum and would have suffered harm upon their return. Possibly sanctuary leaders have sensitized Americans more to some of the unhappy realities of life for ordinary Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Possibly — and this would be ironic — sanctuary publicists have also raised Americans’ concern about uncontrolled illegal immigration flows.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that the sanctuary movement has used the refugee issue to advance a view of U.S. immigration policy and actions that is fundamentally false and unfair. It has wildly and irresponsibly exaggerated the situation that Salvadorans face when they are deported home. It has offered little, if any, ideas that are constructive in the way of improving U.S. immigration and asylum policies. It has regrettably politicized the discussion of humanitarian refugee issues and blurred the important distinction between asylum and other motives that foreigners have for desiring to stay in the U.S. It has virtually ignored the needs of displaced persons in El Salvador, not to mention refugees from Nicaragua and other nations suffering turmoil or civil war.

Why has this been so? One can only speculate, but one senses that what motivates much of the leadership in the sanctuary movement, as in activist liberal church circles generally, is a profound conviction that the United States is the real “evil empire.” This conviction orients all political action by church liberals. The church left rejects the ideals that guide American foreign policy makers. Religious liberals view the record of U.S. foreign relations with nations of the Third World — and especially Latin America — as an unmitigated disaster for the latter.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is the sanctuary movement’s linkage of concern for refugee issues with work to terminate U.S. aid to the Duarte government. If the twentieth century has taught nothing else, it should at least have taught the lesson that while war undoubtedly creates refugees, the peace that follows upon the victory of totalitarian political forces can create far more refugees, and far greater inhumanities, than those that accompany war itself.

This recognition moved the official church newspaper of El Salvador, Orientacion, to editorialize last December 8 about the continuing opposition of U.S. religious activists to aid to El Salvador. The editorial stated that much had changed in El Salvador in five years; 1980 and 1981 had been years of “criminal repression, abuse of power and enormous outrage against human rights,” presumably by the government. But now the guerrillas were waging a battle to impose their ideology upon the nation. As a result, the editorial continued, “it is no longer so easy to condemn United States arms shipments.” While the Salvadoran people had clearly rejected the guerrillas, Orientacion expressed concern about persistent hostility to aid to El Salvador on the part of American Christians. “We do not understand,” it said, “why other entities or persons seek to decide our destiny.” Nor do many Americans.


At the time this article was written, Holt Ruffin was executive director of the World Without War Council of Greater Seattle. The views expressed here are his only and are not intended to represent the views of the Council or any other persons associated with it.

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