Wave Of Central American Migrants Triggers 30-Year-Old Memories

By Jude Joffe-Block
June 25, 2014
Jude Joffe-Block
The church room where Central American migrants slept after Southside Presbyterian first began offering sanctuary.

TUCSON – For some, the surge of Central American families and children crossing the Southwest border in recent months is triggering déjà vu.

More than 30 years ago, about a million Guatemalans and Salvadorans started fleeing to the United States, escaping civil war. And like today, there was a debate about whether those migrants were refugees, or should be deported.

Back then, some American activists even violated federal law to help those migrants stay in the U.S.

John Fife was one of them. He used to be the pastor at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian church. 

“We are located in the oldest and poorest barrio in Tucson,” Fife said on a recent weekday visit to the church. 

Back in the early 1980s, Fife became worried about the civil wars in Central America.

Guatemalans and Salvadorans were fleeing military-led massacres and death squads.

“Everyone in the international community said to the United States, 'these people are refugees, the conditions they are fleeing justify a grant of political asylum to them,'” Fife said. “And the United States government said no.”

Jude Joffe-Block
John Fife in Southside Presbyterian Church with a sculpture titled Sanctuary.

Almost all asylum seekers from Guatemala and El Salvador were denied in those years. But Fife knew that deportation back to their countries could be deadly.

That’s when a fellow activist, Jim Corbett, approached Fife with a proposal.

“[He] basically said, ‘John, I don’t think we have any choice but to help people cross the border without being captured by Border Patrol.’”

So Fife and about 20 other activists in Tucson basically became pro bono smugglers. Fife says the first time, he had to think hard about the decision.

“Am I willing to go to jail for a year or two, in order to save this family from deportation to death?”

They helped migrants get from Northern Mexico to Southside Presbyterian.

A simple room off of the church’s courtyard served as a sleeping area for the migrants. These days it has a polished cement floor and a kitchen on one side.

“This used to have 50 to 60 people, just sleeping on the floor every night, when we began,” Fife said.

In 1982, the church announced to the federal government it was providing sanctuary to the Central American immigrants and shielding them from deportation.

“Their response was if you do that, we’ll indict you,” Fife said.

Even so, the sanctuary movement spread to other churches and synagogues around the country. An underground railroad formed to shuttle immigrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to as far north as Canada.

The federal government did prosecute Fife and others. Fife received five years of probation.

But the sanctuary activists countersued. And by the early 1990s, public policy had shifted.

“The government agreed to stop all deportations to El Salvador and Guatemala,” Fife said. “And they agreed to a whole series of reforms to the political asylum process.”

Courtesy of Patricia Barceló
Patricia Barceló in 1985 after she arrived in Tucson from Guatemala.

Patricia Barceló was a scared 12-year-old from Guatemala when her family crossed into Arizona. Her parents were union organizers — and were being targeted by the right-wing military in power in Guatemala at the time.

 “I can proudly say, sanctuary rocks — that it is because of them that I am alive,” Barceló said on a recent visit to the church.

She remembers meeting Fife her first night in the U.S. in December 1985. Today she’s 40, works at a hospital, and has a teenage son.

“I remember when I was crossing the border, all I wanted to get out of this from what I understood, was that I was going to have a chance, that I was going to sleep with my shoes off, that nobody was going to come to my house with guns and kill my family,” Barceló said. “That was my understanding of why I was coming up north.”

Now, seeing the current headlines of children and families fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in big numbers bring back some of those memories. Between October of 2013 and June 15, 2014, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended or turned themselves in at the border. There has also been a spike in Central American parents crossing with children.

A mix of incorrect rumors about U.S. immigration policy, as well as gangs and violence at home seem to be driving the recent influx.

Jude Joffe-Block
Patricia Barceló, now 40, at Southside Presbyterian Church.

“I have that sense of guilt that not everybody in my country got out,” Barceló said. “A lot of them that needed to get out got killed. They didn’t have the same chance that I did. I think the kids that are coming up right now are just asking for an opportunity to survive to have a home, and have a safe home.”

Fife sees a lot of parallels between this current moment in Central America and the 1980s.

“Folks now are fleeing death threats, and killings and massacres,” Fife said. “All those are the same factors, the source is different this time.”

 It is organized crime and drug cartels, Fife said, rather than the governments driving the violence.

 For his part, Fife wants to see a revival of the sanctuary movement.

It is sure to be a controversial idea, though it is one that could start with his old church. Last month, Southside Presbyterian offered sanctuary publicly to an immigrant for the first time in more than 20 years.

Ultimately the federal government delayed the deportation of Mexican national Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, 36.

Now a church in Phoenix is following suit.

Shadow Rock Unified Church of Christ announced Wednesday that it will be offering sanctuary to Marco Tulio Coss Ponce, a local immigrant father who faces deportation.