The birth of the Sanctuary Movement

John Fife, Co-Founder of No More Deaths Explains his fight against injustices

  By: Julia Blumberg

John Fife, founder of the Sanctuary Movement and No More Deaths, learned no one from Guatemala and El Salvador were being granted political asylum during the 1980s despite having valid claims. 

He met a Quaker rancher, Jim Corbett, and they created a system likened to when people helped slaves through the Underground Railroad to protect them, where they were bringing refugees across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“When we started, we were just bringing them to our house. Bring them home. And then the numbers grew to the point where Jim came to me and said, “Can we bring folks we crossed to your church? So, I consulted with the leadership of the church, and they said, after a long discussion, well, we never asked anyone for papers when they came to this church. We’re not going to start now,” Fife stated. 

The church Fife is talking about is Southside Presbyterian Church in Barrio Viejo, Tucson and is where the Sanctuary Movement originated. For over a year and a half, they were bringing refugees across the border to the Church and were threatened to be indicted at one of the political asylum hearings. 

“Everything we thought was so secretive, but at one of the political asylum hearings, the government attorney spoke with one of our attorneys, representing the Central Americans, and said Border Patrol intelligence knows what those guys are doing, tell them to stop it or we will indict them,” Fife stated. This resulted in further meetings and discussions, but the bottom line was they could not stop what they were doing to protect these people. 

The best way to do that was to go public and call the church a sanctuary for Central American refugees as one Lutheran pastor suggested in a letter. 

“I had gotten a letter from a Lutheran pastor in East LA who described how an immigration agent chased this 14-year-old Salvadoran kid down the street. The kid had run into his church, hid in the closet. And the agent called for backup and searched the church, found this kid and dragged him out in handcuffs. The last paragraph of this letter had said, ‘Why can’t the church be a sanctuary from this kind of intrusion by civil authorities into the sanctuary like it was in the Middle Ages in Europe?’ Fife shared. 

Fife’s church was the first to try to claim sanctuary for Central American refugees. The movement had started and request after request came in from all over the country about sending individuals to churches and synagogues declaring sanctuary. 

“We obviously could not put them on a plane or bus. So, we went back and read about the old Underground Railroad, and tried to replicate it as closely as we could. And it worked, as well as it did in the 1850s,” Fife shared. 

Expanding even more, calls started coming in from churches and human rights organizations in Central America to help get people from El Salvador and Guatemala through Mexico. 

“Jim kind of took that leg of what became an extended Underground Railroad then to Central America from there to the border, and I took from the border north to Canada. So, we divvied it up a little bit. The movement grew to the point that the government decided not to indict us originally,” Fife added. 

11 people were indicted, including John Fife and his friend Jim Corbett in January of 1985 – alongside some priests, nuns, the director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council, and church lay workers. They were not allowed to cite refugee law nor the conditions in Guatemala and El Salvador, nor their faith in court so they took it to the court steps to tell the press and the media. 

The government resisted their efforts, but those being indicted, like Fife and Corbett, used the media to draw attention to the support refugees need: “This movement itself more than doubled just during the time we were on trial so the government did us a huge favor.” 

The Justice Department and the lawyers, representing Fife and other individuals, reached an agreement in 1989. 

“The government agreed to stop all deportations to El Salvador and Guatemala. They agreed to give everyone Temporary Protected Status (TPS) who were here without documents so they could work. And they agreed to a whole series of reforms of the political asylum process. So, we had a dance, and called an end to this Sanctuary Movement,” Fife stated. 

The work of Fife and others did not end there. The increased militarization and prevention through deterrence forced and continues to force migrants through rough terrain. In his research for a report, Todd Miller, a journalist in Tucson, found that the budget for border militarization has increased from $350 million in 1980 to $23.7 billion in 2018. 

“So, we had to go back to organizing again, around the same lessons we tried to learn from Sanctuary [Movement]. The government was once again violating basic human rights and law and international law by using the deaths of 1000s of migrants as a deterrent to other people trying to cross, which is a violation of basic human rights. And so we helped to organize Humane Borders, that puts water stations out there, and then Tucson Samaritans and then that grew to Green Valley Samaritans, and Ajo Samaritans, and then No More Deaths to be a 24 hour a day, seven day a week presence in the desert and provide food monitor and emergency medical care there,” Fife expressed.