Who Counts? The Church, the State, and Sanctuary for Refugees in America in the 1980s

Brian Mueller, Independent Scholar

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration refused to admit refugees from El Salvador into the United States. Despite the tens of thousands of Salvadorans being “disappeared,” the Reagan administration classified them as “economic migrants,” and thus rejected their claims that they sought protection from political violence. At the same time, Reagan’s State Department allowed refugees from nations under communist-rule, such as Cuba and Eastern European countries, to enter the United States. In this paper, I explore the efforts by faith-based activists to protect fleeing Salvadorans from being returned to an almost certain death in their homeland. To ensure that Central American migrants were counted as refugees, and thus able to apply for political asylum, various religious organizations sought to publicize the humanitarian crisis in El Salvador. At the same time, they pointed to the role played by the U.S. government in creating the crisis conditions in El Salvador as part of the Reagan administration’s efforts to roll back communism in Central America. The paper will also examine the role of the churches in providing sanctuary to Salvadorans. The faith-based activists risking imprisonment by taking part in the sanctuary movement looked to God rather than the U.S. government for direction. Thus, groups like the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America identified with the oppressed seeking asylum in the United States and sought to aide them as God implored his followers to do. In the end, this paper will address whether this strategy of combining anti-interventionist agitation and faith-based sanctuary helped alter the calculus used to determine who counted as a refugee in the United States.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 186. Religion in Social Movements