June 26, 2018 Faith

Resurrecting Sanctuary

Written by: Kelsey Hill


Somewhere along a highway in Texas, a police officer pulls over a car. Inside, there are six people: three Americans and three Salvadoran refugees — one of them an 18-month-old baby. They are piled in the car en route to a safehouse in San Antonio, and despite a recent crackdown on border crossings, the two adult migrants have entered the US illegally in an attempt to flee the intense violence of local militias in their home country.

All of them are apprehended by law enforcement, with the three Americans charged on three counts of transporting undocumented immigrants.

With immigration at the center of America’s focus, this story seems like it was ripped from yesterday’s headlines. But it actually happened in 1984, during the American Sanctuary Movement, and resulted in the dismissal of all charges against a Catholic lay worker named Stacey Lynn Merkt for her role in the safe passage of the three asylum-seeking refugees. The Christic Institute, the predecessor of the Romero Institute, defended Merkt on trial and was one of the organizations to preach the virtue of sanctuary for all people fleeing the violence of the US-backed right-wing forces in Central America including the contras.

Under our current, increasingly xenophobic administration, it seems like this history is repeating itself.

Trump migrant center 2

In just five weeks, President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy separated over 2,300 children from their parents at the country’s southern border. Public outrage resulted in the president signing an executive order “ending” the family separation, but officials told NBC News that families may not be reunited for months. Horrifying allegations of abuse and misconduct continue to come out of the child migrant detention centers, ranging from sexual violence to forcing unaccompanied children to take psychotropic drugs disguised as vitamins. 

Like during the 1980s, the present moment has seen a recent uptick in people fleeing the “Northern Triangle Nations” — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — due to the life-threatening socio-political circumstances there. Before it was deathsquads. Now, it’s cartels and gangs. Both are political situations either created or worsened by US intervention in Central America.

This is why we need to remember, and revive, the American Sanctuary Movement.

By May, 1984, 24,000 refugees had applied for asylum status in the United States, but only 1 percent of the applications were granted. The movement for sanctuary was born out of a need to protect people fleeing the Northern Triangle, lest they be turned back to face the violence of their home countries. A network of interfaith leaders and private individuals in the early 1980s organized to provide safe passage for refugees, housing them in more than 100 churches, religious homes, and safe houses across 60 US cities.

The Christic Institute, which would later expose the Iran-Contra debacle, became involved in the case when Merkt (29), Sister Dianne Muhlenkamp (36), and Jack Fischer, a reporter from the Dallas Times-Herald, were arrested at the border on Feb. 17, 1984. With them, they had Mauricio Valle (23), Brenda Elizabeth Sanchez-Galen (19) and her 18-month-old daughter, Bessie.

“People in Germany said they did not know. We know what is happening in El Salvador. We know what awaits these people. We cannot say we don’t know.”

– Christic Institute president and chief counsel Daniel Sheehan

An important part of Merkt’s defense was to remind the jury of the role US-endorsed fascist regimes played in the exodus of refugees entering the country at the time. According to the Guardian, “the defense presented reams of evidence showing that the relationship between US support for oppressive regimes and military intervention is creating the flood of refugees whose only hope for safety is to find safe haven in the US or Mexico.”

When Valle and Sanchez-Galen took the stand, speaking of the violence they had witnessed in their home country of El Salvador, members of the jury were moved to tears. Valle, employed as a driver back home, witnessed such intense harassment of his father and sister that both were eventually driven to commit suicide; Valle himself was targeted by a deathsquad and only narrowly escaped. Sanchez-Galen, a practical nurse before she fled, told the jury about the atrocities she had seen — including one story of a female relative horrifically killed while six months pregnant.

“People in Germany said they did not know,” said Christic Institute president and chief counsel Daniel Sheehan, comparing the atrocities in Central America to Holocaust Germany. “We know what is happening in El Salvador. We know what awaits these people. We cannot say we don’t know.”

Stories like Valle’s and Sanchez-Galen’s were, unfortunately, not uncommon, and news of the humanitarian crisis caused the interfaith community to take direct action. Calling upon the ancient theological tenet of “sanctuary,” many Christian faith leaders believed that it was their moral imperative to treat foreigners with the dignity, love, and respect called for in the Bible. Bishop John Joseph Fitzgerald, founder of the Casa Oscar Romero safe house named after our organization’s namesake, Archbishop Oscar Romero, in San Benito, Texas, supported Merkt along with a group of other interfaith leaders across the country. The director of the safe house, Jack Elder, was later convicted alongside Merkt in a later case. The house helped more than 700 refugees from 1982-1984.

Left to right: Valle, Merkt, Galen-Sanchez, her daughter, and Sheehan

In his closing statements, Sheehan reflected on the theological and historical importance of the case and the asylum question in general. Telling the story of Herod in the Bible, he asked members of the prosecution and jury if any would “attempt to deport” Jesus, Joseph, and Mary away as they fled the king’s infamous infanticide under the cover of night. “Go back to the jury room, find your Bible, find your gospel,” he said.

Sheehan cited the tenets of the gospel of Matthew, pressing the religious significance of the case. “We are not asking people to violate the law in this case. Do not mistake us,” he said. “But our people of the Church of this land, if it becomes necessary, will provide the shelter, will provide the sanctuary, will provide the food.”

The biblical allegories made in Merkt’s defense were not far fetched then, and they are not today. Despite the fact that the Merkt was convicted and sentenced to 179 days in jail, her story continues to echo in the hearts of interfaith leaders and immigration activists alike.

When she surrendered herself to a federal prison while two months pregnant, she is said to have told the supporters with her, “Take risks and do it for justice.”

In the midst of the current immigration crisis, organizations exist which have drawn from Sanctuary principles, saying they are a part of a resurgence. More than 1,100 congregations have pledged to provide sanctuary to those whom the U.S. government seeks to deport.

“Sanctuary means a commitment,” writes Rev. Deborah Lee of the Interfaith Movement of Human Integrity in an op-ed. “A covenant to those who are vulnerable and under attack — whatever happens, we will walk with you.”

Photo by Iryna Yafimchyk for Working Families

Supplementary reading

The first vindicating argument in the American Sanctuary Movement came from Christic’s defense of Catholic workers who provided sanctuary for refugees seeking political asylum. (U.S. v. Stacey Lynn Merkt, et al.)

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