Commentary: How America can learn from listening to asylum seekers

Alirio Gámez’s story did not begin when he arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum.

Like most people who migrate to the United States, Gámez’s story began before he was even born. His native country of El Salvador was destabilized by military interventions directed and funded by the United States. Though Gámez loved his native country, violence made it impossible for him to stay.

I understand the collective national amnesia that does not want to hear such unpleasant historical facts. As a young minister, I did not know the history of U.S. interventions in Central America — and to be honest, I did not want to know it.

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A former CIA agent whose mother went to our church used to describe U.S. atrocities in El Salvador. He told me our country was covertly supporting death squads that were killing priests and nuns and tens of thousands of helpless people. Thinking he was crazy, I did everything I could to avoid him.

One day, I met a Quaker missionary who had worked in El Salvador. I laughingly asked her if there was any truth to the rantings of this former CIA agent. To my dismay, she said it was all true.

As I began to research for myself, I learned that our nation pumped $4.5 billion into repressive regimes that cost at least 70,000 Salvadorean lives. Such traumatic violence does not leave the soul of a nation easily. Gámez was born into the residual trauma of our earlier actions — and the ongoing trauma of a U.S.-funded drug war. He did not want to leave his native El Salvador but was forced to flee to protect his family and himself.

Gámez entered the U.S. as an asylum seeker. He followed the legal process. After being sent to three different detention centers from South Texas to New Jersey, he lost his case and was ordered to be deported. Knowing that he could not return to his home country, he took sanctuary at First Unitarian Universalist Church here in Austin. Perhaps Gámez heard stories of people who were deported back to the violence of their homeland only to be found dead later.

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Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador began as a typical clergyman trying to avoid controversy during the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s, but he died a champion of his people. Romero was eventually shot through the heart as he said Mass shortly after appealing to the U.S. not to send more military aid to El Salvador.

Romero said there are some truths that cannot seen by eyes that have not cried. In other words, until we have listened to people like Alirio, we cannot imagine why providing sanctuary might be necessary. Courageous immigrants such as Alirio show us what the word “sanctuary” really means. In seminary, I pictured “sanctuary” as a fancy room with velvet pews and stained-glass windows; after meeting undocumented immigrants I now know that “sanctuary” means a place where every person from anywhere in the world can find safety and dignity.

Romero said that each one of us must be God’s microphone. What does that look like here and now?

For First Unitarian Universalist Church and for 18 other churches around this nation, it means providing physical sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. For hundreds of other communities of faith. it means joining local immigrant-led coalitions supporting some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

Providing sanctuary for sojourners is at the historical heart of many religious faiths, but it also something that calls us all. Providing sanctuary in an age of violence and cruelty is how we hold onto our human hearts.

Rigby is an ordained minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin and a founding member of Austin Sanctuary Network.

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