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Rev. John Fife says the church has a responsibility to protect and advise asylum seekers. (Credit: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

'Under the Trump administration, all are considered criminals'

The U.S. president's portrayal of refugees and migrants is "dehumanizing," says this minister and longtime advocate, and Trump's policies have made it harder for churches that are trying to help them.

By Julie McGonegal

Even in retirement, Rev. John Fife, 78, has no time to slow down. After launching the Sanctuary Movement in the early 1980s, he and his congregation in Tucson, Ariz., helped more than 15,000 asylum seekers find refuge. Here, he speaks with Julie McGonegal about his efforts under the current U.S. administration.

Q: How is sanctuary an ancient faith practice?

A: For Jews and Christians, the first biblical evidence for sanctuary is found in the Torah, where God sets aside cities of sanctuary so that people fleeing revenge killings, blood feuds and tribal conflicts can find protection. Beyond that, the evidence from anthropologists and archeologists is that almost every sacred site or place of worship in every culture globally has historically been a sanctuary. Roman temples were sanctuaries. There’s evidence developing in Africa and Latin America of Indigenous peoples’ designation of sacred sites as sanctuaries. So it’s not just a Judeo-Christian tradition; it’s universal, and it goes pretty deep.

Q: It’s also a tradition in the United States. I am thinking of the Underground Railroad, from which the Sanctuary Movement takes its inspiration.

A: That’s right. In the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement began to protect refugees from Central America. The United States was detaining and deporting folks fleeing death squads, torture chambers and the massacres of hundreds of villages. We began with a legal aid project to help people apply for political asylum. When no one from El Salvador or Guatemala was getting asylum, a Quaker colleague, Jim Corbett, pointed to the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad that helped runaway slaves cross state lines safely. He said that, as he read history, those folks were faithful — they got the faith right.

He also pointed to the almost total failure of the church in Europe to protect Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust during the 1930s and 1940s. He looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t think we can allow that to happen on our border on our time, can we?” It was around then that we began smuggling refugees across the border and protecting them in the church.

Q: How are you focusing your humanitarian efforts now?

A: We’re involved with two organizations. One is Samaritan Patrol, which we started out of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson in 2002, and the other is No More Deaths, which we started in 2004 to try to save lives out in the desert, where most migrant deaths are occurring. Volunteers live in camps and hike the migrant trails with food, water and emergency medical gear, giving them to migrants who are lost, seriously ill or wounded. I had this careful plan for retirement of taking up falconry and fly-fishing, but there hasn’t been much time for that! 

Q: The U.S. treatment of refugees and immigrants has never been stellar, but would you agree that there’s been a distinct departure under President Donald Trump?

A: It’s clearly changed under this administration. And the changes have been numerous. The two executive orders that Trump issued as soon as he took office were an indication of what was to come. The first declared that all undocumented persons in the country were considered criminals and a threat to national security. That had never happened before in the history of the United States. He also said that political asylum for people claiming refugee status had been abused in the past, and so he ordered the Justice Department to cut the number of refugees who would be accepted into the country in half.

That policy has continued to unfold. The latest iteration is zero tolerance, which means that anyone crossing the border without documents, including refugees claiming asylum, are being charged as criminals. Children are being separated from their families and treated as unaccompanied minors, allowing parents to be deported without their children. What compounds all of these administrative actions against refugees is the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the president and many of his supporters. They describe immigrants as vermin, animals, an infestation. This dehumanizing portrayal of all immigrants as a threat to national security has not occurred in this country since early in the 20th century.

Q: What do these policies look like on the ground?

A: Prior to the Trump administration, the government of Barack Obama had focused on excluding people who had a criminal history but granting relief from deportation to folks who had families, long-term jobs and strong community ties. Those priorities made a significant difference. The Sanctuary Movement revived during the Obama administration, and we provided sanctuary here at Southside Presbyterian Church, as did many other congregations across the United States, for families who were eligible for that kind of relief. People could seek asylum in the church when they received a deportation order and then seek relief from that deportation while they were in sanctuary. This worked to keep families together. But under the Trump administration, all are considered criminals and there is no relief.

It’s a substantial challenge for the church to give people good guidance because of all the political changes and risks that migrants and refugees are facing. We’re initiating networks and conversations to aid and protect migrants and refugees internally in Central America, throughout Mexico and with the church in Canada. Our responsibility to protect and advise requires that we provide accurate information and pastoral care to the most vulnerable.

"[Sanctuary is] not just a Judeo-Christian tradition; it’s universal, and it goes pretty deep."

Q: What are your thoughts on how scripture is being leveraged, as it was by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to support these policies and practices?

A: When virtually every major faith community rose up and said that the separation of children and the long-term incarceration of families were against everything that our faith required of people, Sessions reverted back to quoting Romans 13, which has been used to justify almost every heinous and devastating act of the United States government. It was used to justify the genocide of the Indigenous peoples; it was used to justify slavery; and it was used to justify Jim Crow laws and segregation. It was one of those defining moments for the religious community. We weren’t going to allow that to happen again. All of the major faith communities told him, “Not this time.”

Q: What needs to be done with the U.S.-Mexico border? Is it a matter of reform, or should borders be opened or even abolished?

A: Ultimately, I think we all recognize that the European Union has already moved to eliminate borders among the countries in the EU. And the United States, Canada and Mexico are probably not far behind. The economic initiatives for commonality translate into a recognition that borders are eventually going to be irrelevant. We’re getting the blowback from anxieties — from people who have a memory of how important borders have been to identity and culture. But society is moving in the opposite direction. We’re in the midst of that conflict, with fear and anxiety being the greatest threat to a world that is moving more rapidly than any of us can keep track of.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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