To begin, here are the bare facts of a recent local news item:
Honduran-born Abbie Arevalo-Herrera became the first person to be publically granted sanctuary by a religious denomination in Virginia this week. On Wednesday, June 20th, she was formally granted sanctuary at the First Unitarian Universalist Church near Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia.
She came to the United States in 2014 to seek asylum after the father of her first child made death threats against her. He punched her the first time when she was six months pregnant. He would routinely scream at her and threatened to take the baby once she was born.
“I’d rather run away because I was thinking that he would maybe kill me because he tried all the time to kill me,” she said.
She fled to Richmond, and until last week, was working through the process of receiving asylum in the country. Despite applying for asylum, Arevalo-Herrera is now facing imminent deportation and the separation of her family after she was told to report to ICE on Wednesday to be deported back to Honduras.
“I don’t want to be taken away from my family,” she said.
Despite escaping from Honduras four years ago, Arevalo-Herrera said the threats from the father of her first child have not stopped.
“22 days ago, she received the most recent threat and they’re threats on her life and her children’s lives,” Lana Heath de Martinez, Welcoming All Coordinator for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said.
This comes nearly two weeks after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to tighten asylum restrictions. “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” he said.
That ruling is part of the “zero tolerance” policy that Sessions said was necessary to end the ‘lawlessness’ that currently exists in the immigration system.
ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell provided the following statement on the matter:
On June 20, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, a Honduran citizen illegally present in the U.S., failed to report to ICE for removal to Honduras and instead took sanctuary in a Richmond, Virginia, church, making her an ICE fugitive. An immigration judge issued her a final order of removal in March 2015, which required her to depart the U.S.
Now, a little background, perhaps answering certain questions like, ‘what does it mean to take sanctuary, and why, for example, are there so many refugees now fleeing from Central America?’
The sanctuary movement, or the ability to ‘take sanctuary’ is older than Jerusalem. If you are like Mr. Sessions and enjoy dropping bible quotes, you might start with Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong… [he] shall be as native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You can trace a path from there to the sanctuary movement that was effectively established for slaves fleeing that ‘curious institution’ along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.
After that, there was sanctuary offered to the Vietnam War conscientious objectors and resistors by the peace churches such as the Quakers, and then finally, the contemporary version of the ‘sanctuary movement’ starting in the early 1980s.
Then, as today, thousands of Central Americans were fleeing horrific conditions in their homelands and seeking refuge in the United States. Then, as today, many of those conditions were the result of our foreign policy choices and actions.
In 1980, the El Salvadoran civil war was raging and the U.S. was seeking to defeat a collection of leftist militants that wanted land reform for the poverty stricken campesinos. The Reagan administration supported the oligarchs, represented by some of the most ruthless authoritarian governments in the region. In 1980, the Salvadoran government imposed martial law on its citizens. This marked the beginning of mass killings by so called ‘death squads.’ Many times these death squads were quasi military networks, funded by far right oligarchs in the region or the government itself, often assisted by military supplies from the U.S., or dark money from the CIA. Human rights sources estimate that 18,000 to 20,000 people were killed or “disappeared” in 1980 alone. Thousands of Salvadorans fled the violence, coming north through Mexico to the United States.
In the fall of 1981, the killing expanded to Guatemala, which led to a similar exodus. Thousands of refugees fled for their safety, but in trying to gloss the severity of the conflict, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees. Instead, the Reagan administration said they were ‘economic’ refugees, denying them legal entry to the United States. Death squads awaited them at the airports on their return home and many were murdered as they stepped off the planes. In response, the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s was born.
According to the Reverend Noel Andersen, National Grassroots Coordinator of the Church World Service, the churches involved in the Sanctuary Movement reminded the United States government that it was not following its own asylum and refugee laws. Thousands of stories from refugees were highlighted through the media with speaking tours that “raised the consciousness of the unjust nature of these civil wars and questioned the U.S. deportation policies that would have sent asylum seekers back to their death.”
Today, although there is no formal civil war, there are still horrific conditions, caused in many cases by the history of our interventions in Central America.
For example, an average of six people a day are murdered in Honduras (a country of six million), eight a day in El Salvador (population 6.2 million) and 14 a day in Guatemala (population 12 million).
Authorities blame most of the murders on the gangs or maras, but human rights groups say many of the killings are the work of off-duty police officers operating in death squads carrying out a sort of “social purge”.
In some cases, you can draw a line from those narco-gangs to the death squads of the 1980s. Elizabeth Oglesby, associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for Latin American Studies speculates that these criminal counter-insurgency networks [a.k.a. “death squads”] over the years morphed into organized-crime networks — violent gangs known to burst into the homes of innocent civilians and demand payment. Some of these gangs also learned their trade on the streets of L.A. and passed that knowledge on when they were deported years ago—like the infamous MS-13.
Human rights organizations say the increased repression is generating greater violence, and is pushing the youth gangs to develop more complex structures as a survival strategy. Some gang leaders have reportedly forged new links with the world of drug trafficking and organized crime, in search of protection from the stepped-up police action.
In El Salvador, 1,000 soldiers began to patrol the streets of the capital over a decade ago along with the police, in “anti-gang task forces”. The authorities said the new units are to be made up of three soldiers and two police officers.
Marta Savillón, program director at Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organization, said the joint task forces tracked down their “victims” like hunting expeditions. She complained that they have only made it more difficult for groups that reach out to young people, because gang members who in the past were identifiable and therefore accessible to those engaged in social work and rehabilitation now go to pains to hide themselves away.
The arrests have also swept up ex-gang-members who were in the process of rehabilitation, she added.
In Honduras, organizations like London-based Amnesty International and Casa Alianza have also reported that death squads are killing youngsters suspected of belonging to gangs, often merely because they sport tattoos.
Savillón said that Casa Alianza has documented 2,778 murders of young people below the age of 23 between 1998 and last July. Most of the victims were members of maras.
Because these murders are usually not investigated, the perpetrators enjoy total impunity, said the activist.
A 2003 report by Amnesty International, “Honduras Zero Tolerance…for Impunity: Extrajudicial Executions of Children and Youths since 1998”, says “Most of the victims lived in poverty, on the margins of society, with little education and few job prospects. Honduran society has viewed the deaths of these children and youths with indifference and apathy, some newspapers even suggesting it as a possible solution to the problem of public insecurity.”
So the refugees come across our borders. Once again.
Not fleeing a civil war, necessarily, but in large part its aftermath, the fierce gangs that grew out of the remnants of civil society, seeking profits through extortion or operating with the drug cartels.
NBC news reported that fieldworkers like Magdel and Mirna Lopez and their son, not yet 2, decided to flee their small village in eastern Honduras after narcotraffickers murdered two of Mirna’s sisters. “We have rights as humans to be safe,” Magdel Lopez told a journalist, “and I believe the troops at the [U.S.] border will respect that.”
She was wrong.
Alexandra Mejia was one of 20 transgender individuals in the caravan fleeing violent persecution back home. The 29-year-old said she left El Salvador’s capital city after drug traffickers raped her and murdered her father. At her dad’s funeral, the same traffickers told Mejia they would kill her if she didn’t flee the country in 24 hours. She took their advice.
Armando had a similar case. A cab driver in his native Honduras, Armando had to cross a patchwork of street gang territories each working day, fearing for his life.
“Every day it was a challenge to go to work, I did not know if I would return to my house. But I had no other choice – I needed money to live and support my sister and my mother, with whom I lived,” says Armando.
Unable to make the ever-escalating extortion demands, Armando skipped a scheduled meeting with the gang and fled on foot and by bus to neighboring Guatemala.
After crossing the border into Mexico, he clambered on to a freight train, better known as ‘la bestia,’ or ‘the beast,’ to make his way north – unaware that he was once again in mortal danger. Criminals preying on the riders tossed Armando under the wheels of the moving train, severing his right leg.
The UNHCR said the number of Central American applications for refugee status had also risen sharply. Of the 350,000 applications between 2011 and 2017, 130,500 – nearly 40% – were filed last year.
Central America was last year home to four of the world’s 50 deadliest cities while Washington’s controversial deportation of Central Americans has been blamed for exacerbating the problem.
“The people who are coming are saying that the level of violence is brutal – they are basically confined to their own houses because there is a lack of freedom. It is very dangerous to go to school, to go to church, to move around,” said Francesca Fontanini, a Mexico-based UNHCR spokeswoman, “They are living in very traumatized and violent circumstances.”
Fontanini said most of those seeking shelter were Hondurans and Salvadorans but the number of Guatemalans had been rising since last year.
According to LawFare.com “among migrants leaving Guatemala, some are fleeing gangs or societal violence in cities, but many migrant families and unaccompanied children come from the Guatemalan highlands, which are more rural, agriculture-based, indigenous, and have lower rates of violence (defined by homicides) than other parts of the country. In asylum proceedings in the United States, women and children from this region frequently cite endemic family and domestic violence, and neglect from the local police who cannot speak their languages or do not answer their phone calls. These areas have also been buffeted by a changing climate, frequent natural disasters, and droughts. And the poverty in these regions leaves residents with little ability for resilience in the face of unpredictable rains or external events.”
“Without an ability to live safely or prosperously in Central America, residents begin looking to head north to the United States. That means coming up with the US$6,000 to $10,000 necessary for hiring a smuggler. To obtain this money, residents may sell their land or property, rely on the generosity of friends or family in the United States, or borrow money from local loan sharks and leave their farms and property as collateral. This latter option has its own consequences: migrants who use loan sharks and then are detected and deported by Mexican or U.S. officials are unable to pay back the loans, losing their lands in the process and becoming displaced once again.”
For those who make it through Mexico, the plan is usually to present themselves to U.S. border agents and seek asylum, as hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have done in recent years.
But this year was different, apparently. The remnants of a caravan for the U.S. arrived at San Ysidro, the San Diego sector port of entry and attempted to present themselves to Customs and Border Protection agents at the line that marked the border itself.
They weren’t allowed to. CBP agents claimed that the San Ysidro facility was already full of asylum seekers whose cases were being processed, and didn’t have room for more. This happens routinely; asylum seekers are often forced to stay in Tijuana for days or longer while waiting to be processed. The caravan group slept under the walkway to the port of entry building on Sunday night. On Monday, they waited to try again.
Now, many refugees that are specifically fleeing domestic violence or gang violence will not get in, no matter how long they wait, of course.
Attorney General Sessions has ordered those items—gang violence, domestic violence– not to count as asylum worthy—even if U.S. policy has helped to create them.
The Reverend Jeanne Pupke senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist church in Richmond disagrees.
These crimes, domestic violence, gang violence matter, deserve protection, she told a crowd of more than 100 people Wednesday afternoon. She said that she would offer her church as a sanctuary for Abbie Arevalo-Herrera for as long as she wanted to stay there. For as long as it was needed. “For as long as you wish to be among us.”
She told Arevalo-Herrera and the press that the church will stand by her family to fight what she called “immoral” and “inhumane” immigration laws.
“We will not allow them to destroy families,” she said, defiantly. “We are going to kick up a fuss that Mr. Sessions cannot ignore.”
Given the current political climate, Abbie and her family may be there for quite some time. But the church members and local community organizations seem willing to wait. As long as it takes.
Said Alliance for Progressive Virginia policy director, Scott Price, “Each generation is called to judgment by history, so far ours hasn’t made much of an accounting….We are asking our fellow citizens to stand up …Join us, be counted.”
Others refugees are welcome in sanctuary, Reverend Pupke added, “We are privileged as a congregation to open our doors to the stranger. To bear witness. To welcome. To practice radical hospitality, because what it says in Jewish scriptures ‘you yourself were once strangers in this land.’”
It was almost as though she were reading the verse off the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
It’s good that someone still does.