If We Want to Support Refugees, We Need To End the Wars That Create Them

The sanctuary movement needs an anti-war voice.

Azadeh Shahshahani and Maha Hilal March 12, 2018

Students at some 100 colleges and universities nationwide have joined the sanctuary campus movement. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

If we're serious about supporting refugees, we need to be serious about ending the wars that create them.

The con­cept of sanc­tu­ary, pro­vid­ing refuge and pro­tec­tion to peo­ple who are mar­gin­al­ized and oppressed, has a long his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States — even when the Unit­ed States itself is respon­si­ble for that repression.

An ear­ly exam­ple of sanc­tu­ary in the Unit­ed States is the Under­ground Rail­road of the 19th cen­tu­ry, which helped peo­ple escape slav­ery through routes and hous­es iden­ti­fied as safe by abo­li­tion­ists and free­dom seek­ers. In the 1950s and 60s, African-Amer­i­can orga­niz­ers of the civ­il rights move­ment often held meet­ings in church­es. Immi­grant jus­tice advo­cates have pio­neered sanc­tu­ary church­es” since the 1980s.

These days, the con­cept is most often asso­ci­at­ed with so-called sanc­tu­ary cities” — state and local juris­dic­tions that say they refuse to coop­er­ate with fed­er­al efforts to deport undoc­u­ment­ed res­i­dents. These cities have been relent­less­ly tar­get­ed by the Trump administration.

Mean­while, through three iter­a­tions of the Mus­lim Ban and oth­er poli­cies, Trump has dras­ti­cal­ly cut the num­ber of refugees accept­ed into the Unit­ed States from oth­er countries.

The admin­is­tra­tion’s aggres­sion has reignit­ed move­ments to chal­lenge anti-immi­grant poli­cies and defend the rights and safe­ty of immi­grants. Suc­cess­ful legal chal­lenges have been lodged against an anti-sanc­tu­ary city order, for exam­ple, while oth­er chal­lenges ini­tial­ly delayed the full imple­men­ta­tion of the Mus­lim Ban. Still, none of that fight­back has deterred the admin­is­tra­tion from its war on sanc­tu­ary, or on immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties more generally.

Trou­bling­ly, the U.S. for­eign poli­cies that dis­place peo­ple from oth­er coun­tries remain firm­ly in place. And here, there’s a lot of room for the sanc­tu­ary move­ment to grow. 

With the admin­is­tra­tion cre­at­ing such a hos­tile atmos­phere, the role of sanc­tu­ary to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties has become even more crit­i­cal. But in the long term, sanc­tu­ary has to mean more than just pro­vid­ing refuge, or fil­ing legal briefs on behalf of the dis­placed, though these ser­vices are vital.

Ulti­mate­ly, with sanc­tu­ary should come a renewed com­mit­ment to chal­leng­ing the U.S. for­eign poli­cies that actu­al­ly dis­place people.

The revival of the sanc­tu­ary movement 

The mod­ern sanc­tu­ary move­ment evolved in the 1980s in response to the heavy hand of U.S. poli­cies in Latin Amer­i­ca — a his­to­ry detailed exten­sive­ly in 2006 Migra­tion Pol­i­cy Insti­tute paper by Susan Gzesh.

The right wing was on the rise then, and so was the Cold War.

In the late 1970s and 80s, El Sal­vador and Guatemala became embroiled in civ­il wars. Rather than sup­port­ing democ­ra­cy, the Unit­ed States inter­vened to help vicious right-wing gov­ern­ments sup­press Marx­ist-led pop­u­lar move­ments there.

In El Sal­vador, Gzesh writes, U.S. forces aid­ed Sal­vado­ran mil­i­tary forces and para­mil­i­tary death squads that were respon­si­ble for thou­sands of dis­ap­pear­ances and mur­ders of union lead­ers, com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, and sus­pect­ed gueril­la sym­pa­thiz­ers, includ­ing priests and nuns.” Next door in Guatemala, the coun­try’s U.S.-backed army waged a geno­ci­dal counter-insur­gency cam­paign against indige­nous communities. 

The result of these poli­cies was a mas­sive refugee flow. Ulti­mate­ly, near­ly a mil­lion Sal­vado­rans and Guatemalans fled to the Unit­ed States.

Despite the fact that they were flee­ing repres­sive gov­ern­ments backed by the Unit­ed States, these dis­placed peo­ple were treat­ed as eco­nom­ic migrants,” and con­se­quent­ly denied their sta­tus as refugees or asy­lum seek­ers. Because of this des­ig­na­tion, Gzesh notes, approval rates for Sal­vado­ran and Guatemalan asy­lum cas­es fell to under 3 per­cent in 1984—com­pared to 60 per­cent for Ira­ni­ans, 40 per­cent for Afghans and 32 per­cent for Poles.

This gross dis­crim­i­na­tion led to a polit­i­cal response, as well as grass­roots resistance.

In 1983, some mem­bers of Con­gress advo­cat­ed for Extend­ed Vol­un­tary Depar­ture” for Sal­vado­rans flee­ing unrest at home. How­ev­er, this request was denied, as the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion claimed approv­ing it would only cause a larg­er influx of Sal­vado­ran refugees seek­ing to come to the Unit­ed States. Despite attempts by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to pass bills shield­ing Sal­vado­rans from depor­ta­tion, none suc­ceed­ed in the Senate.

Unfazed by these polit­i­cal set­backs, the sanc­tu­ary move­ment in this era pushed immi­gra­tion jus­tice for­ward and broke new ground through the coor­di­na­tion of a broad array of grass­roots move­ments. It was gal­va­nized, in part, by reli­gious con­gre­ga­tions in places like Tuc­son, Ari­zona, and by reli­gious lead­ers like the Rev. John Fife, who declared his South­side Pres­by­ter­ian Church a place of sanc­tu­ary for migrants. The mid 1980’s saw the evo­lu­tion of a strong sanc­tu­ary move­ment that includ­ed more than 540 reli­gious con­gre­ga­tions that pub­licly sup­port­ed sanctuary.

Impor­tant­ly, these con­gre­ga­tions were joined by many human rights and anti-war groups — who, Gzesh says, sought to turn the debate over sanc­tu­ary into a broad­er indict­ment of the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion’s war in Cen­tral America.”

At the same time, Sal­vado­ran and Guatemalan refugees were devel­op­ing inter­nal mech­a­nisms and orga­ni­za­tions to help mem­bers of their own com­mu­ni­ties gain the assis­tance that they so des­per­ate­ly need­ed. These orga­ni­za­tions includ­ed Casa Guatemala, Casa El Sal­vador, Comite en Sol­i­dari­dad con el Pueblo de El Sal­vador and others.

Mean­while, legal ser­vices projects were launched by attor­neys and oth­er activists to pro­vide assis­tance to detained refugees. These efforts expand­ed with lawyers from non­prof­its offer­ing legal ser­vices, and pri­vate prac­ti­tion­ers act­ing as legal coun­sel for refugees. Dur­ing this time, local and nation­al bar asso­ci­a­tions and the Nation­al Lawyers Guild Nation­al Immi­gra­tion Project helped address the grow­ing need for legal assistance.

Amid the increas­ing polit­i­cal momen­tum, a class-action suit called Amer­i­can Bap­tist Church­es v. Thorn­burgh was brought for­ward to chal­lenge the Rea­gan administration’s poli­cies, which until that point not only cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly reject­ed polit­i­cal asy­lum claims, but also crim­i­nal­ized those who had assist­ed refugees gain asylum.

1991 brought a legal vic­to­ry in the U.S. Dis­trict Court in San Fran­cis­co — in the form of a set­tle­ment that not only allowed polit­i­cal asy­lum cas­es once denied to be re-opened, but also allowed for oth­er refugees who feared the polit­i­cal cli­mate the chance to apply. This deci­sion allowed class mem­bers to obtain work per­mits, while also pro­tect­ing them from deportation. 

Impor­tant­ly, Gzesh recounts, the set­tle­ment also includ­ed lan­guage stat­ing that gov­ern­ment deci­sions on polit­i­cal asy­lum cas­es would not be influ­enced by for­eign pol­i­cy con­sid­er­a­tions.” That was a huge victory.

The move­ment even­tu­al­ly scored vic­to­ries in Con­gress as well. In 1990, after its ear­li­er failed attempts to address the sit­u­a­tion of Cen­tral Amer­i­can asy­lum seek­ers, leg­is­la­tion was passed giv­ing the pres­i­dent author­i­ty to selec­tive­ly grant Tem­po­rary Pro­tect­ed Sta­tus. In its first iter­a­tion, TPS was extend­ed to Salvadorans.

Vio­lence at Home and Abroad

The sanc­tu­ary move­ment of the 1980s was a tremen­dous show of sol­i­dar­i­ty with Sal­vado­rans and Guatemalans flee­ing repres­sive, U.S.-backed regimes. The move­ment oper­at­ed as an inte­gral part of the anti-war and sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment oppos­ing U.S. involve­ment in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can wars.

While the move­ment scored impor­tant vic­to­ries in pro­tect­ing refugees, the under­ly­ing U.S. for­eign poli­cies that con­tributed to their dis­place­ment did enor­mous dam­age in Latin Amer­i­ca and beyond — then and now. 

For decades, the Unit­ed States has trained mem­bers of the region’s mil­i­taries in the arts of tor­ture and intim­i­da­tion, imped­ed democ­ra­cy by sup­port­ing a vari­ety of dic­ta­tor­ships, and tam­pered in elec­tions—right on up to the recent elec­tion in Hon­duras. There, the U.S.-trained forces of a right-wing gov­ern­ment have bru­tal­ly cracked down on pro­test­ers who, backed by inter­na­tion­al observers, say the vote was fraud­u­lent. Mean­while, mass U.S. depor­ta­tions of gang mem­bers and gun exports and — in the case of Hon­duras — sup­port for a coup gov­ern­ment have helped make El Sal­vador, Guatemala and Hon­duras three of the dead­liest coun­tries on earth.

Despite inflict­ing this dam­age, the Unit­ed States recent­ly pulled back on human­i­tar­i­an relief mea­sures such as Tem­po­rary Pro­tect­ed Sta­tus for Sal­vado­rans, threat­en­ing 200,000 peo­ple with depor­ta­tion. More­over, Trump has repeat­ed­ly (and infa­mous­ly) called for a bor­der wall between the Unit­ed States and Mex­i­co, where decades of U.S. trade pol­i­cy and drug war inter­ven­tion have also caused tremen­dous vio­lence and displacement.

Today, sanc­tu­ary cities and places of wor­ship have re-emerged as a pow­er­ful force chal­leng­ing Trump’s aggres­sions against immi­grants not only from Latin Amer­i­ca, but also from oth­er coun­tries. A move­ment start­ing as far back as the air­port protests against the first Mus­lim Ban has fought back against the admin­is­tra­tion’s cru­el­ty to immi­grants and refugees from the Mus­lim world.

There too, dis­place­ment and forced migra­tion have been wide­spread as a result of U.S. inter­ven­tion. The Unit­ed States, of course, has launched wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq — with the war in Afghanistan being the longest offi­cial war yet—now indef­i­nite­ly extend­ed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. The Unit­ed States has also been deeply involved in wars in Libya, Syr­ia and beyond.

The Costs of War project esti­mates that 76 coun­tries are now part of Wash­ing­ton’s War on Ter­ror”—many of which were named in var­i­ous iter­a­tions of Trump’s Mus­lim Ban. In effect, the admin­is­tra­tion is once again try­ing to ban migrants from the very coun­tries where the Unit­ed States is drop­ping bombs, sell­ing arms, sup­port­ing dic­ta­tors or oth­er­wise con­tribut­ing to insta­bil­i­ty and repression.

In an inspir­ing show of sol­i­dar­i­ty, air­port ral­lies and sub­se­quent mobi­liza­tions opened their arms to immi­grants and refugees from the Mus­lim world. But in some­thing of a con­trast with the move­ments of the 1980s, which direct­ly con­nect­ed the refugee cri­sis to U.S.-backed wars in Latin Amer­i­ca, few­er con­tem­po­rary voic­es have raised ques­tions about why refugees might have left their coun­tries, or what role U.S. vio­lence might’ve played in dis­plac­ing them.

Gen­eros­i­ty” is only a start

Secur­ing refuge for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple is of course cen­tral to the work of pro­tect­ing refugees and immi­grants. But that work would be sig­nif­i­cant­ly strength­ened by move­ments broad­en­ing their focus to include demands for end­ing the wars and account­abil­i­ty for U.S. poli­cies that cre­ate refugee flows.

Oth­er­wise, refugee reset­tle­ment is cast in terms of gen­eros­i­ty, like a favor the Unit­ed States does for the impoverished.

For exam­ple, the U.S. State Department’s web­site states: The Unit­ed States is proud of its his­to­ry of wel­com­ing immi­grants and refugees. The U.S. refugee reset­tle­ment pro­gram reflects the Unit­ed States’ high­est val­ues and aspi­ra­tions to com­pas­sion, gen­eros­i­ty, and leadership.” 

While this fram­ing might be use­ful for per­suad­ing some oth­er­wise unwill­ing peo­ple to embrace immi­grants and refugees, it fails to men­tion the U.S. role in bomb­ing peo­ple’s homes, arm­ing rebel groups or oth­er­wise inter­ven­ing in vio­lent con­flicts — among oth­er acts that cre­ate refugees. 

Even before Trump, when peo­ple more sym­pa­thet­ic to refugees had the ear of the White House, the Unit­ed States was mak­ing appeals for refugees on the one hand while cre­at­ing them with the other.

For exam­ple, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma announced in Sep­tem­ber 2016 that the U.S. would take more than 110,000 refugees, includ­ing an increased num­ber from Syr­ia, call­ing the refugee cri­sis a test of our com­mon human­i­ty.” Though the next admin­is­tra­tion put a quick end to that goal, this was a wel­come ges­ture at the time, con­sid­er­ing that the U.S. has accept­ed only a tiny per­cent­age of the mil­lions of refugees cre­at­ed by the war.

But more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the Unit­ed States dropped more than 12,000 bombs on Syr­ia in 2016 alone — all under Oba­ma’s watch — which only exac­er­bat­ed the refugee cri­sis. Gen­eros­i­ty” can mit­i­gate some of this harm, but it’s not enough on its own.

Mak­ing the Connections

If we’re seri­ous about sup­port­ing refugees, we need to be seri­ous about end­ing the wars that cre­ate them. As the sanc­tu­ary move­ment expands, the need to incor­po­rate an anti-war and anti-mil­i­tarist lens could not be more important.

Specif­i­cal­ly, that means advo­cat­ing for an imme­di­ate end to wars in Afghanistan and the Mid­dle East, demand­ing that mil­i­tary spend­ing be used instead on social ser­vices and infra­struc­ture needs in the Unit­ed States, and sup­port­ing local res­o­lu­tions that sup­port refugees and immi­grants and call for changes in U.S. for­eign policy.

What if the Unit­ed States actu­al­ly owned up to its vio­lence? How much more com­pelling would the move­ment call to pro­tect those who come to our bor­ders be, if peo­ple under­stand that they’re flee­ing vio­lence that the Unit­ed States has caused?

The Unit­ed States has always been a coun­try of ideals — despite nev­er liv­ing up to them. The rise of sanc­tu­ary move­ments is a new chance to push for the real­iza­tion of these ideals by telling real sto­ries about cause and effect. It’s a chance to build a mul­ti-pronged move­ment aimed at pro­tect­ing refugees and end­ing the wars that turn peo­ple into refugees.

The first step is mak­ing the connections.

Azadeh Shahsha­hani (@ashahshahani) is Legal and Advo­ca­cy Direc­tor with Project South and a past Pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Lawyers Guild. Dr. Maha Hilal (@Dr_Maha_Hilal) is the Michael Rat­ner Mid­dle East Fel­low at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies, Co-Direc­tor of Jus­tice for Mus­lims Col­lec­tive, and an orga­niz­er with Wit­ness Against Torture.
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