A “well-founded fear of persecution” was—on paper—the requirement for obtaining refugee status after 1980, according to the Refugee Act passed that year to bring the United States’ asylum policy up to international human rights code snuff. Before the act’s passage, refugee status was doled out only to those escaping Communism, in line with the nation’s Cold War era political motives.
But a question of trust intercedes; whose fears are deemed well-founded? The Reagan administration didn't anticipate the bill would coincide with an estimated 1 million Central American refugees seeking asylum during the 1980s, mostly fleeing civil war in Guatemala and El Salvador. Today's privatized migrant detention centers can trace their origins to that decade, when thousands of refugees were detained around the US-Mexico Border. Thousands more entered the United States to disperse without documentation. Among those, some were transported into the country along a network of sanctuary homes and churches nicknamed the "Overground Railroad."
After Tucson, Santa Fe was often the second stop on the line.
In February of 1984, a family of seven stopped in Santa Fe, their identity obscured by hats and bandanas. The mother Elena’s hat reads “HOW ‘BOUT THEM HOGS,” technically an Arkansas Razorbacks Football slogan, but it’s tough not to extrapolate. The family, who spoke to TheSanta Fe New Mexican in 1984 and whose photograph is memorialized as part of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archive, had spent the previous 14 months migrating north through Mexico. Before that, Felipe, the father, spent three years in hiding in Guatemala after receiving death threats from the Guatemalan government for organizing agricultural unions and teaching Spanish literacy to his neighbors.
A coalition of around 50 locals in Santa Fe and Albuquerque opened their homes and cars to refugees, the story reported, offering a place to stay overnight or a ride to the next stop on the Railroad. Elena and Felipe’s family planned to journey north to New England, where they’d been offered long-term sanctuary.
The Reagan administration called Central American asylum seekers "economic migrants" rather than victims of human rights violations, and accepted under 3 percent of asylum applications, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Meanwhile, refugees complained of poor conditions in border detention centers. In 1983, 89 members of Congress requested "extended voluntary departure" to Salvadorans fleeing war, but the administration refuted, touting fears of a "magnet effect"—grant asylum to some, the logic goes, and specious asylum seekers will flood the borders in hordes.
President Donald Trump echoed this sentiment earlier this month on Twitter, addressing border detention camps: "If we show any weakness, millions of people will journey into our country."
Religious organizations, notably the Presbyterian Church, which founded the Sanctuary movement, were among the key groups opposing national asylum policy. In 1986, the New York Times reported that about 270 Jewish, Protestant and Catholic congregations offered sanctuary to Central American Refugees. Lawyers formed legal aid organizations around the country. The voices of the refugees themselves became a major presence in national advocacy campaigns. In 1986, Gov. Toney Anaya designated New Mexico a “state of sanctuary” for Central American refugees, to “bring moral and political pressure to bear on leaders across the country,” he told the New York Times that year.
The government prosecuted aid workers as both sides made conflicting claims to the law. Activists invoked international human rights measures to dispute the US government: the religious and moral principles of Abolitionism; the Nuremberg principles developed after World War II, for personal accountability in the face of crimes against humanity.
Activists invoked WWII not only in law but in rhetoric. A drawing by political cartoonist Sean Jon from the 1980s shows Ronald Reagan accompanied by a quote meant to mimic Reagan’s language, but in what today seems like a recurring “gotcha!” stunt, is actually an Adolf Hitler quote. “…The Republic is in danger from within and without— / We need law and order— / Without law and order, our nation cannot survive.”
The language of exclusion is perennial. When I came across the cartoon in the archive, I couldn’t help think of another quote I came across last week during one of my regular evening activities, which is dissociating while scrolling through Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. On June 19, he wrote, “If you don’t have Borders, you don’t have a Country!”
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