April 2021History

Reflections from 1987: Sanctuary vs. Imperialism

The ongoing flow of migrants from Central America to the United States has its roots in the US-sponsored wars in the region during the 1980s, as detailed in this article from the January 1987 issue of the Socialist by Todd LeFurge, an activist with the DC Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). The destruction perpetrated during those conflicts caused misery in the region that still drives people to migrate for better lives or, frequently, to save their lives. The efforts during that time to establish the District of Columbia as a Sanctuary City — a campaign backed by the local DSA chapter — bore fruit with a declaration by then-Mayor Marion Barry that was strengthened by subsequent administrations. Largely in response to President Trump’s brutal anti-immigrant policies, the DC government stepped up its defense of migrants in 2017 and afterward, including providing legal aid and assistance with asylum applications.

- Bill Mosley


There’s a firm linkage between the campaign against civilian populations in Central America by US-trained agents of repression and the swelling refugee population in Washington, DC.

One-sixth of DC’s population is now made up of Salvadoran refugees from the savage war of oppression that has displaced 30 percent of that country’s people. Because the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies located here consistently argue that our 100,000 Salvadoran brothers and sisters here in his city are “economic refugees,” local human rights and solidarity organizations are launching a campaign to counter that disinformation and instead make DC a Sanctuary City.

The DC Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and the DC Sanctuary City Committee are working to broaden public knowledge of our Salvadoran sisters’ and brothers’ desperate plight — here and elsewhere — and the deep roots of that plight in systematic US imperialist policy of supporting antidemocratic repression and training the forces that are the agents of that repression and brutality.

The systematic nature of the brutality and its linkage to concrete US policy are well documented:

  • The CIA and Green Berets organized, trained and sustained (including with arms) the death squads, including ORDEN’s [Organización Democrática Nacionalista — eds.] 10,000 members led by General Medrano, who traced the organization back to the State Department of the Kennedy era (see The Progressive, May 1984). A Special Forces general, according to McClintock’s book The American Connection, spoke in now-declassified documents of training “a civil and military structure” to carry out “terrorist activities against known communist proponents.” When the CIA definition of “communist” includes the elected leaders of Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973, it’s clear that reduction of infant mortality, land reform and defense of human rights are all grounds for being targeted by death squads.
  • The military in El Salvador attempts to “drain the sea” of civilian support for popular insurgencies through bombing campaigns, scorched-earth sweeps and individual murders.
  • US spy planes radio the positions of groups of people detected through infra-red technology to NORAD, which turns that information over to the US-trained-and-supplied Salvadoran air forces for bombing raids. Many of the 60,000 persons killed in El Salvador since 1979 have been victims of aerial bombing.
  • Dr. Charlie Clements, who furnished in his writings and in the movie Witness to War exhaustive accounts of bombing raids against civilian populations, also overheard US advisors directing a “scorched-earth” sweep in El Salvador. The sweeps murdered individual civilians and flushed whole populations out of liberated zones. Over 30% are displaced, 1.3 million to the utter misery of squalid refugee camps. America’s Watch, the human rights organization, documented many cases like that of the man from the village of Aguacayo, near the Guazapa volcano, whose grandfather was murdered. “They decapitated him and put his head on the table,” he reported.

There is a direct connection between thissystematic terror carried out as a result of US policy and the crowded miseryof the Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in DC who nonetheless countthemselves as the lucky ones compared to those in the camps in their homelands.They are five to an apartment, maybe 30 to a house.

But the situation is not at all hopeless. The establishment of the District of Columbia — the home of the State Department and the INS — as a Sanctuary City would be the focus of a human rights network here and around the country that would take other concrete, positive actions. Telegrams and letters could respond in a timely way to specific instances of human rights abuses. The network and its supporters could also send humanitarian aid directly to progressive organizations for food production and clinics. In conjunction with supporting those organizations, we would be strengthening pressure for negotiations aimed at opening up the wrecked Salvadoran countryside for more work by those organizations, demonstrating alternatives and organizing people.

Establishment of DC, the national capital, as a Sanctuary City would force the media to take notice, thereby supporting the sanctuary movement nationally.  Through church presentations, which are the heart of our sanctuary campaign, we can greatly expand opposition in the churches locally. We rarely have openings to the churches and the media as we have in this campaign, and this adds to the appropriateness of the work and the need for progressive people’s support.

See more in categoryReturn to Issue