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On March 24, 1985, a “tiny Salvadoran woman, her face shielded by a flowery white veil” entered the sanctuary of Georgetown’s Dumbarton United Methodist Church. The dreary weather that greeted her—fog, rain, and wind—didn’t make for the most hospitable of welcomes. But, as the Washington Post reported at the time, she was escaping a nightmare. In 1980, her teenage son had been arrested and detained for three months as a “suspected subversive,” tortured, forced to make a false confession, and sent to prison for seven months. Not long after, her husband, a bricklayer, was arrested and tortured by government police, eventually dying from his injuries.
The church couldn’t feel further from those horrors. Nestled in Georgetown at the corner of 31st and Dumbarton streets NW, it can feel distant from the District itself. By 1980, Dumbarton United Methodist was a well-known hub for social justice causes, from social bigotry and the Vietnam War to nuclear proliferation. But the arrival of the diminutive woman indoctrinated Dumbarton into something far riskier—what became known as the Sanctuary Movement, in which hundreds of religious leaders, lawyers, and activists provided a safe haven for those fleeing political violence in Central America. The woman was America Sosa.
The Sanctuary Movement injected American religious institutions into the heart of a gravely complex political and human problem. And when it came time for its members— clergy, attorneys, activists, refugees—to lay it all out on the line, they held fast, despite the very real threat of prosecution.
By placing itself directly at odds with a U.S. foreign policy that largely refused to recognize these people as refugees, Dumbarton, one of several D.C. churches that participated in the movement, made itself a target of retribution from the Reagan-era Department of Justice. But in opening its doors to Sosa, it also gave a home to a woman who would prove to be a vibrant voice for social justice in the Central American community, both in D.C. and around the country. While her stories were tragic, she made it her mission to make their brutality something tangible for Americans otherwise insulated from suffering.
When Tom Brunkow took over as pastor at Dumbarton United Methodist in 1975, he found a church on the verge of closing its bright blue doors for good. Older, middle-class Washingtonians were fleeing for the suburbs, leaving the serene, yellow brown brick Georgetown church behind.
But younger pastors like Brunkow and his predecessor Henry Kylie saw opportunity amid Dumbarton’s uncertain future. They inflected their sermons and attitude with a progressive bent. Politics, cultural evolution, immigration—Dumbarton would find a place for all of it, and encourage spirited debate. Kylie took the dramatic step of ripping out the pews and reshaping them into a circle to better foment exchange in the high-ceilinged sanctuary.
In December 1980, four visiting American Catholic churchwomen were killed in El Salvador near San Salvador’s airport. Their deaths helped rally churches across the United States to the cause of the thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans fleeing repression and economic destruction laying waste to Central America.
The Reagan administration regarded Central America as a vital theater in the Cold War. It backed right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, and provided funding and training to the insurgent Contras in Nicaragua fighting against the left-wing Sandinista government. By May 1981, the American public was aware of U.S. support for the military governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, thanks to a lawsuit members of Congress filed against the administration for violating the War Powers Resolution. Meanwhile, human rights groups continued to document thousands of government-linked murders and disappearances of union leaders and suspected guerrilla sympathizers, including those of religious figures. In the first 10 weeks of 1980 alone, the Salvadoran Human Rights Commission recorded 689 political murders.
But the federal government had barred Salvadorans and Guatemalans from entry by classifying them as “economic migrants,” skirting the requirements of the Refugee Act of 1980, which required the U.S. take in any refugee with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Such a designation would seem to apply to Central American refugees seeking asylum. Cold War politics wouldn’t allow it.
But flee they did, risking death by starvation, exhaustion, and thirst, as they embarked on the trek from El Salvador to the U.S.-Mexico border, and then on to any city they could get to. D.C. gradually became one of the favored havens.
After they arrived in the U.S., refugees faced tremendous odds in asylum hearings. They were required to present opinion letters from the State Department on their cases to immigration judges. These letters held great sway over the judges, so it didn’t help that the federal government was denying the extent of the human rights abuses happening in El Salvador and Guatemala.
On March 24, 1982, Southside Presbyterian Church of Tucson, Ariz., and six other churches across the country began offering sanctuary to those fleeing violent political repression in Central America. The churches would help them cross the border, coordinate their legal assistance, and shelter them, using as their guide the international human rights norms established at Nuremberg.
Attorney Susan Gzesh worked as a legal consultant for the movement in Chicago, and explains that movement organizers in their home countries had screening processes for the type of people they would send to the U.S. “You needed people who had their shit together and could deal with explaining the situation they had come out of,” she says. These refugees, in other words, were expected to be vocal activists. “You have to see the refugees themselves as agents in this. They weren’t helpless little kids.”
Joining the Sanctuary Movement felt like the proper Christian thing to do. And it brought a “sense of tension, excitement” and a collision with real-world issues, Brunkow says.
Dumbarton’s congregation wasn’t some passel of upstart lefties. Though the largely white, middle-class congregation of Dumbarton boasted a progressive tradition, it also included a broad smattering of Washington suits—“defense types,” as Brunkow calls them. So to assess the potential risks, Dumbarton consulted with legal and academic experts from American University, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Langley Hill Friends Meeting, which had taken in refugees in the past. Other progressive causes the church had championed, like embracing gay unions, challenged church law. But sanctuary could violate federal law, and incur punishment. “I was ready to go to jail for this,” Brunkow says.
In 1984, a coalition of D.C.-area congregations that were considering providing sanctuary for Central American refugees invited a survivor named Mauricio Alarcón to speak at area churches, including Luther Place Memorial Church on 14th Street NW, All Souls Church on 16th Street NW, and a number of congregations in Maryland. Dumbarton United Methodist was one.
In 1979, Alarcón had been a student at the National University of El Salvador’s Santa Ana campus. He also had been an outspoken activist, serving as the president of the student body. On Oct. 15, 1979, the day of the coup, Alarcón had been kidnapped and tortured by government security forces. He would eventually find out that his brother and two of his cousins had been killed during the crackdown. “They were targeting students, teachers, and people in unions,” he now says.
After his release, he quickly left El Salvador for Los Angeles, where he lived and worked for three and a half years in a succession of jobs, including scrubbing hubcaps and vacuuming interiors of cars at a carwash and bussing tables at the Hillcrest Country Club. In 1983, he took part in a protest march from New York to Washington, and decided to stay in Silver Spring. He soon moved to Mount Pleasant, where he lived in a series of group houses. “It was a neighborhood of activists,” he remembers, teeming with civil rights workers, international social justice fighters, soup kitchen workers, and a smattering of Hill folk. Alarcón honed his English by discussing civil rights and civil liberties with his mostly American housemates. He found work as a research associate with the Jesuit Conference and as a janitor at a radiology clinic at the Watergate.
Dumbarton invited him to speak and testify in favor of providing sanctuary. “I was talking to the congregation about what happened to me as a result of being an activist in El Salvador, [that] I was kidnapped and tortured, and explaining the reasons I came to this country,” he says. “And they decided to become a sanctuary church.”
On March 28, 1984, Dumbarton’s social concerns committee voted to recommend that the church join the Sanctuary Movement. Preparations began in earnest that summer, as the congregation began fundraising to support refugees. On Oct. 18, 1984, Dumbarton held a “long and anxiety-filled” meeting to make a congregation-wide decision on sanctuary, where all members were given the opportunity to voice their opinion on whether to join the movement. The final tally: three opposed, five abstained, and 32 in favor.
Given the legal risks, Dumbarton chose to keep its preparations secret. In the months following the vote, Brunkow would occasionally walk down to a pay phone at the corner of 31st and O to make “clandestine phone calls” with Phil Wheaton, one of the movement’s chief coordinators, as Dumbarton began making plans to take in a refugee.
It was an ominous time for the movement. In March 1984, the Justice Department began cracking down, arresting and indicting churchpeople around the country who’d been assisting Central American refugees. The government called it Operation Sojourner.
The Sanctuary Movement would not be deterred by the crackdown, Brunkow said in a sermon at the time. “It is my belief and hope that in fact now other communities of faith will join the Sanctuary Movement and not be frightened or intimidated by this recent government action against the movement,” he said. “I encourage other communities of faith to become sanctuary congregations.”
For much of the Sanctuary Movement, the specific function of finding refugees to pair with churches was taken up by the Chicago Religious Task Force, and assisted by the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which had been working with the human rights leader Monseñor Oscar Romero since 1978. (He was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980.) UUSC’s then-director of human rights education, Charlie Clements—a physician and Vietnam Air Force pilot turned Quaker human rights activist—spent several months learning Spanish and reaching out to contacts in the Salvadoran opposition. Eventually, he parlayed his work as a doctor into infiltrating El Salvador on foot via Honduras.
Clements quickly saw that participating in the human rights community in El Salvador could be fatal. Activists frequently wound up dead, sometimes in their driveways and in front of their children. Marauding death squads roamed the streets of San Salvador, kidnapping people from their places of work, their homes, and even hospitals. Gradually, those that advocated on behalf of the disappeared began “to really not fear death because what they had to do transcended their own lives. They understood that,” Clements says. He returned to the States and testified on the Hill about U.S. involvement in El Salvador. That turned him into “persona non grata” in the eyes of the federal government, making it nearly impossible to return to El Salvador.
Then in 1984, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights decided to confront the Salvadoran government by presenting its first-ever human rights award to a prominent group in San Salvador. The only way Clements could return to El Salvador was with an official delegation. So he joined the RFK group (which included actor Mandy Patinkin) on its trip. “I was able to kind of hide in its midst and know that I would probably be protected by them,” he says.
The recipient was a group called CoMadres. Founded in 1977 by women who had lost sons and spouses, CoMadres was among the boldest of the human rights groups working in El Salvador, Clements says, investigating thousands of disappearances and murders occurring during El Salvador’s Civil War. They also fought for amnesty for political prisoners and to get information on the whereabouts of missing family members and punishment for those suspected of political assassinations.
“When you went to their office, they had these large, three-ring binders with 8×10 photographs of these horribly mutilated bodies, so that mothers or daughters or sisters or anyone…[could] come in there and look at these pictures and try to find their loved one,” Clements says. The CoMadres would march through the streets in front of soldiers in protest, defiantly wagering that they wouldn’t shoot women who looked like their mothers. But the disappearances and killings did not abate. “That’s what the mothers were standing up to.”
On the day CoMadres received their award, one woman spoke of her 14-year old son, who had been arrested by the Salvadoran national police, tortured, accused of murder, and imprisoned without trial for seven months. The same woman’s husband, a construction worker, had disappeared in 1981. He eventually reappeared, after allegedly being tortured by government security forces. Fifteen days later, he died from his injuries. The woman, Gloria Hernandez, had adopted the pseudonym America Sosa.
“She told that with great pain,” Clements says, “but was very determined for us to understand this was not about her pain…this was happening to many, many Salvadorans on a daily basis. The mothers of the disappeared were there to bring attention to this mayhem that was made possible with U.S. foreign assistance.” At the time, the Reagan administration was trying to convince the American people that the Salvadoran military’s stance on human rights was improving. “And she was there to contradict that, to say that that was absolutely not true.”
Soon after CoMadres received the award, Clements helped Sosa cross the Mexican border into the United States in 1985.
For security reasons, those sheltering refugees like Sosa on each leg of their journey only knew as much information as necessary: the name of the refugee and the route they’d use on that segment of the journey. “If someone had a passport, they might travel by bus from El Salvador to Guatemala to Mexico to [a] city along the border,” Clements writes. “If they were forced to come undocumented, because they had to flee death squads, they might be escorted on such a journey by friendly Americans or Mexicans.” Crossing the border into the U.S. at crossings like Ojinaga near Big Bend, Texas, was problematic, but much less so than today, he adds.
Once in the U.S., a new arrival would be driven to a city like San Antonio or Dallas; from there, she’d be taken to a more central city like St. Louis, then on to D.C. or another city. “There were always at least two people in the car besides the refugee. Remember, there were no cell phones in those days, but people were expected to check in either every few hours or at appropriate landmarks along the way.”
In the days preceding her arrival, Dumbarton had posted fliers inviting people to greet her. And when she arrived on the afternoon of March 24, 1985, the pews and balcony at Dumbarton were packed, as a rain pattered against the beautiful stain glass panes installed in honor of past congregants.
Brunkow began his liturgy that day with a eulogy for Romero. The ceremony included prayers in Spanish and songs by folk singer Peter Yarrow. Sosa sat quietly as Brunkow and others introduced her during the worship service. In truth, she was tired, too tired for communion after the long ceremony. “No más,” Brunkow remembers her pleading.
Sosa spent her first three nights of sanctuary living in the church’s basement and several months at a private residence (its location known to only a few), then eventually moved in to an apartment on Columbia Road NW in Adams Morgan. Dumbarton grasped Sosa’s importance, helping her tour the country to speak about what was happening in El Salvador. “We were just holding our breath. But they never touched her,” Brunkow says. “America didn’t flee El Salvador because she was afraid,” Clements says. “Sanctuary gave her a way to confront the policy” that had destroyed her life and country.
And Dumbarton, in the backyard of the U.S. foreign policymaking apparatus, was home base. Brunkow says the feds continued to keep an eye on the church, sending what he describes as “guys there taking notes” on the congregation’s activities. “We wondered who this guy in the back of the congregation on Sunday morning was. We were a very small, tight group. We knew everybody there.”
In January 1985, 16 people associated with the sanctuary movement in Arizona, including one its founders John Fife, were indicted on a host of federal charges, including conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens into the U.S. Through that year, Reagan officials had been slamming the movement for purportedly using Salvadorans as pawns to attack them. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (and future Iraq War architect) Elliott Abrams advised the movement to go the legal route, saying those in hiding would never gain refugee status.
But the INS was rejecting 97.5 percent of Salvadoran asylum applications at the time, so it seemed like an absurd suggestion. INS countered saying that the number of deportations to El Salvador dropped by 61 percent from 1981 to 1984 because of Salvadorans taking their cases to court, according to a 2006 paper by Gzesh and a 1986 piece in Harper’s by David Quammen.
Despite the darkening clouds, Sosa kept on working. At a festive protest in D.C. in March 1986, speakers assailed the INS, DOJ, and Reagan administration, as musicians like Jackson Browne rallied the determined crowd. By that time, the movement included about 300 churches and synagogues, spread across 14 cities.
Clements assailed “self-proclaimed patriots” like Richard Perle and Newt Gingrich that “call[ed] for someone else’s son to defend this nation as they try to exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam in the green hills of South America,” Harrington wrote. Then it was time for Sosa, who shared with the crowd the story of losing her husband and sons. She also spoke at a benefit concert given by Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash and David Crosby in May 1987 in Venice, Calif. All proceeds from the $16 tickets went to CoMadres.
By Oct. 27, 1987, more than 400 churches and synagogues nationwide had joined the movement. It had become less about bringing refugees across the border and more about providing legal help and counseling to those already here. By March 1989, there were some 80,000 Salvadorans living in D.C., giving it the second-biggest Salvadoran population in the U.S. behind L.A. Many settled in Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant.
Many had lost family members and friends. Their survivor’s guilt would cause them to wake up in the middle of night, “sweating and screaming,” as one woman who now has a politically sensitive job in D.C. and wanted to remain anonymous tells me. In search of English classes one Sunday, she stumbled into the Our Lady Queen of the Church on California Street NW, where she discovered a meeting of a solidarity group called the Compañeros of the Monseñor Romero coalition. They shared practical necessities like clothes and food, as well as stories of home and survival. Eventually, the Compañeros would serve as a platform to provide testimonials to those eager to learn of what was happening in El Salvador. Others banded together to form health clinics that could help undocumented women with little money or mastery of English like La Clínica del Pueblo. That was the community that CoMadres’ D.C. office, led by Maria Teresa Tula, worked with and sought to empower.
Tula first met Sosa in El Salvador in 1978 at a Christian community center. “There had been much violence against human rights in our country. And the United States, they really didn’t know what was the reality of life in El Salvador,” she says through a translator. The Reagan administration “supported the Salvadoran government. They sent military equipment to them. So [Sosa] came…to represent what was happening…so that they would know that there had been disappearances, incarcerations, and assassinations.”
Though their work was grim, their lives slowly normalized. “We were always in the [D.C. CoMadres] office, working on different activities. And after that, everyone went home to their own houses. And sometimes on the weekends we would have a little sort of party, and everyone would bring different food, and maybe we’d go to a park. And when we weren’t working together at CoMadres anymore, we always talked by telephone.”
Meanwhile, the right-wing party in El Salvador had just won a national election, causing many Salvadorans in Washington to predict more war, and more of their brothers and sisters coming to the U.S. Would-be activists feared reprisal from their government if they protested openly, even from the safety of D.C. In fact, the District wasn’t the most tolerant place for them either.
On, March 20, 48 demonstrators protesting the estimated $1.5 million of aid the U.S. gave to El Salvador each day were arrested at a protest at the State Department. And on March 29, 1989, the hammer finally came down on Sosa. INS agents arrested her at the CoMadres offices at the First Congregational Church at 945 G St. NW, charging her with living and working in the U.S. (for $3.35 an hour for CoMadres) illegally. Sosa told USA Today that it was “not [her] will to be here illegally,’’ but because CoMadres members were regularly denied visas, she had no choice. Her arrest, she alleged, was purely political. Sosa supporters came out to picket INS offices in Arlington. She was eventually released on $1,000 bail, but would face a deportation hearing in August.
And she went right back at it, telling activist at conference in Westbury on April 2 that her arrest had only served to galvanize opposition to an upcoming Washington visit by newly elected Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani. Sanctuary’s momentum had slowed since her arrival at Dumbarton. But time had come for it to “show its strength.”
On Aug. 11, 1989, throngs of supporters flooded the INS courtroom in Arlington for Sosa’s hearing, during which she would apply for political asylum. Her attorney, William Van Wyke, argued against her deportation on the grounds that El Salvador was engaged in rampant human rights violations. To make their case, they would have to prove to the judge that she had a well-founded fear of persecution.
The activist fervor was overwhelming. “It was the first time all of this had happened—do you understand me?” Tula says. “There were so many people that the court couldn’t even let them in…and everyone was saying, ‘She should be free, let her go.’”
After the hearing CoMadres and its allies held a rally outside the courthouse in Arlington. Activists from groups like the United Methodist Church World Ministries and the National Sanctuary Defense Fund were protesting what they viewed as a “gross violation of human rights against America Sosa” and an INS that had used its power to “intimidate those persons and institutions involved in the public sanctuary movement.” They wanted the INS to end the deportation of Salvadorans like Sosa, and encouraged those sympathetic to their plight around the country to send in letters of support.
“I am very emotional to see all of your support and solidarity here today,” Sosa said through a translator. CoMadres’ aim, she said, was for U.S. immigration authorities to stop viewing Central American refugees as leaving for economic reasons, but instead because “there is no security for their lives there.” CoMadres, she promised, would “continue this work so that we Salvadorans do not have to remain here but rather can…apply for political asylum [and] return to our countries and work for justice in our own country.”
Sosa’s case was dropped, and she eventually became a U.S. citizen.
All told, from 1980 to 1991, almost one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled to the U.S. clandestinely. Two years after Reagan left office, the tide finally began to turn in their favor.
In 1990, Congress passed legislation giving the president power to give temporary safe haven to groups in need, specifically naming Salvadorans as one such group. In 1991, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco approved a class-action settlement that reopened previously denied asylum claims, as well as late applications from refugees who’d been afraid to apply. The decision also gave the members of the class work authorization and protected them from deportation. It also said future government decisions on political asylum claims couldn’t be driven by U.S. foreign policy. Finally in 1997, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act allowed Salvadorans and Guatemalans protected under the Thornburgh decision to apply for permanent residence.
What was the White House’s goal in providing aid and support to Central American governments, such as El Salvador’s? Why were those fleeing violence from the wars of Central America in the 1980s not viewed as refugees by the Reagan administration?
“I believe U.S. law requires that for refugee status there be some element of targeting,” Abrams, who helped formulate U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s, writes in an e-mail. “Generalized violence or poverty,” he writes, isn’t enough to win refugee status.
Did the American sanctuary movement of the 1980s help Central American refugees in the United States? Is it fair to consider the United States responsible, at least partially, for the violence that many Central Americans were fleeing through the 1980s? Abrams doesn’t say. “The Reagan Administration’s goal—and more accurately one would say the goal of the United States, because all economic and military aid had to be approved by Congress—was to alleviate poverty, promote movement toward democracy and human rights, and prevent Communist takeovers,” Abrams wrote.
Today, churches in Arizona are once again declaring themselves sanctuaries. David Hosey is a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C. and has been active with several progressive churches in the city, and knows the social-justice history of D.C.-area churches intimately. The sanctuary movement, he points out, “was a real commitment…that was a powerful thing for churches that saw themselves as liberal, I think, to really have to commit to putting themselves out on the line,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to be a liberal in D.C. But to actually risk sanction? That’s tough.”
Since then, movements in the United Methodist Church toward embracing things like gay marriage have, in a way, inherited the legacy of sanctuary, Hosey says. “The progressive church is starting to come to terms with the fact that it has to step out in other ways. What about persistent systemic racism? What about the trans community…what about the poverty gap?” The next step for these institutions, then—particularly in a progressive place like D.C.—“is going to be figuring out how to speak out and step out at the intersections, and how to move from a ‘All Are Welcome’ slogan to a deeper engagement and sacrifice in the life of the city.”
Now the executive director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago, Susan Gzesh says the Sanctuary Movement’s key achievement was bringing the voices of refugees directly into hundreds of religious congregations around the country. “I can’t think of anything else that I have seen that has been able to have that kind of impact on foreign policy in opposition to something that the government is doing.”
Alarcón wound up receiving degrees from the University of the District of Columbia and George Mason University. Now a teacher and past president of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force, he says the Sanctuary Movement harkened back to the struggle to abolish slavery and civil rights. “They opened the front door of the country to us,” Alarcón says.
Clements, now the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, stayed in touch with Sosa for years, off and on. After the civil war ended in 1992, she remained an immigration activist, helping Salvadorans facing deportation. He saw her for the last time in 2005 in California, where she was advocating for the rights of undocumented, unaccompanied minors. “She had not stopped fighting,” Clements says.
Tula lived in Washington until 1992, and shared a house with Sosa for a time. Sosa returned to El Salvador briefly in the ’90s, but came back to D.C. She eventually married a man named Antonio, since deceased, and settled in an apartment in Mount Pleasant. “I knew she was very happy with him. She loved him very much,” Tula says. Sosa died on Nov. 11, 2011.