Saints at the Border

A Salvadoran refugee shares her memories of the Sanctuary movement.

While some of us were watching the latest episode of Family Ties and trying out new and improved Double Stuff Oreos, Luisa Orellana and her Salvadoran family were fleeing for their lives, knocking on church doors and asking clergymen for safe refuge. They crossed the U.S.-Mexico border running through a blinding rain for two miles in the desert--among an estimated 1 million Salvadorans who fled for their lives during a 12-year civil war that began in 1980.

At a 20-year anniversary commemoration for the Sanctuary movement in Tucson, refugees like Orellana won't condemn anyone for enjoying prime time television or eating junk food. Instead, they will join a host of sanctuary movement veterans to remember the compassion that was shared among Central Americans and those U.S. citizens who were in tune with the wars that the U.S. government didn't officially explain in 1982.

Even church leaders had no idea of the massive violence in Central America at the beginning of the 1980s. "This experience has completely changed my life," says retired minister Ken Kennon of Broadway Christian Church in Tucson. "I was pretty much a plain-vanilla kind of guy before refugees started showing up on our church doorstep and telling us of these atrocities. In fact, I had even served as a member of the U.S. Department of Justice. Now, I realize that what I did back then had an effect on whether people lived or died--whether they got deported back to the living hell from which they came."

The church community played a crucial role in creating awareness of the problem since they already had a built-in communications network through missions. This helped to verify the stories of desperate refugees. U.S. pastors and clergy were able to contact church congregations in Central America and up through Mexico. With the help of Tucson area church leaders like John Fife, of Southside Presbyterian Church, Orellana was able to arrive to safety in the United States. Her family went to live in a Catholic church basement in Spokane, Wash., in 1985. Today the 34 year-old multicultural activist divides her time as a music director at a local Spokane parish, an English as a Second Language teacher to immigrant children and in prison ministry.

Orellana's father, Tanis Stanislaus Orellana, was a deacon with the Christian Base Communities of El Salvador. He served under Archbishop Oscar Romero, one of Latin America's most outspoken priests on human rights abuses. Both Romero, who was assassinated while giving mass on March 24, 1980, and Tanis Stanislaus, based their social outreach on the notion of "liberation theology," or the notion that the church should always work on behalf of the poor. Several years later, Stanislaus was also murdered for his association with the movement that was considered to have strong "leftist" leanings. After his death, the Orellana family fled by bus to Guatemala, crossing into Mexico and arriving in the United States three months later.

"We were so scared. It was the middle of the night on the Guatemala-Mexico border. We tried to hide from the immigration officials in a dark building ... it turns out that we were hiding in the immigration building and the officials were the ones who found us," says Orellana, grasping for some comic relief in the midst of telling her most difficult life stories. "The immigration officials said we would have to return to our countries but then they stuck us on a bus going the other direction. We ended up farther into Mexico."

Not all of their crossings were so fortunate. "At one church I got up and gave a talk to the congregation about how we were refugees. I told them how we had known Archbishop Romero and how, like him, my father had been murdered. Can you believe that someone called the immigration officials on us and we had to flee?"

Throughout Chiapas, through Mexico City and into northern Mexico Orellana, her mother, and 13 of her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews bounced from one church to another. Sometimes they were handed baskets to beg for money after mass; other times they were told that the "church had already been cleaned" and they had to sleep with the chickens in the back.

Orellana doesn't complain. "Personally I think that war, poverty and persecution have been a blessing in my life," she says. They have certainly helped her to appreciate the compassion of those who risked their lives and reputations to save her and her family.

"At one town in Mexico, a priest had arranged for us to meet up with a couple of nuns and some Presbyterian pastors who would take us to the Agua Prieta-Douglas, Ariz., border," continues Orellana, as she discusses the journey. "It was hot and there was a lot of desert. All of us started running, each one with a child in our arms. My mother was praying the rosary the whole time and then suddenly the sky opened up and started raining. It rained so hard we couldn't see where we were going, but it helped because the Border Patrol couldn't see us either. As we got to the other side, the sky began to clear again. There we were met by pastors like John Fife. He gave us food and took us to safety."

Fife and 10 other leaders of the Sanctuary movement were eventually brought to trial in 1985 after the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service began infiltrating church meetings. They served probation sentences for up to five years, but several of the churches, including Southside Presbyterian, took the government to court. They won a lawsuit on the basis that the state had no right to send spies into the church.

"In this case, we weren't practicing civil disobedience, it was what we refer to as civil initiative," says Rick Ufford-Chase, who joined the Sanctuary movement in 1987. He is the director of the Tucson-based immigration organization Border Links. "The government had laws on the book in 1980 stating that any person had the right to seek refuge in the U.S. on the basis of persecution. When a government refuses to follow its own statutes, it's up to civil society to protect the democratic system. Beyond any reasonable doubt, these were asylum cases."

Twenty years later, Sanctuary movement veterans in Arizona continue to focus on justice without borders. They track and monitor conflict in countries throughout the world in order to know where the next wave of asylum cases will be coming. For instance, today there are an increasing number of Colombian asylum seekers. This leads to serious questions about U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. government's Colombia Plan. Today, half of the asylum cases come from Africa, and an estimated 70 percent of asylum seekers are women and children. It is not uncommon for these refugees to be imprisoned with everyday criminals while they wait for their cases to be processed.

These days, immigrant organizations support community development programs within regions like Mexico and Central America to prevent the need for mass migration. Beyond all political concerns, they are committed to saving lives. In the case of both political and economic immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, they have focused on such projects as water stations to protect immigrants from dying of dehydration in the desert. According to Border Links, 1,800 people have lost their lives in the last four years while attempting to make the crossing into the "land of the free."

"When I think of all the people who helped us, they were like saints. They risked their lives to save ours," says Orellana. She says that these activists, combined with Salvadoran role models like Archbishop Romero and her own father, offered her an important faith lesson. "I learned that any time we discriminate or manipulate other people, we betray Christ," she says.

For Orellana, these ecumenical faith-based activists have helped her to feel a sense of dignity even in the most dire of economic and political circumstances. "A lot of times my students call me up and say, 'Teacher, don't tell anyone that in my country I was poor! They're too embarrassed to admit that they didn't have a big house, so I tell them, 'Hey you know what? When we crossed the border into the United States, we were illegal aliens.' I'm proud to say that I was so poor I ate dirt, because then I can appreciate the richness of the U.S," explains Orellana.

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