Institute for Oral History News

1980s Texas Sanctuary Movement Project Revisited by Researchers

Feb. 22, 2011

Sanctuary Movement Session
James SoRelle, Jaclyn L. Jeffrey, David Stricklin

Stricklin, now head of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, and Jeffrey, anthropology professor at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, presented their findings for a sesssion of the East Texas Historical Association spring meeting in Waco, February 19. The session was sponsored by the Texas Oral History Association and chaired by James SoRelle, professor of history at Baylor University. The session title explains the researchers' purpose: "Re-examining the Texas Sanctuary Movement in a New Anti-immigrant Era."

The original project focused on a period of time in which cold-war anticommunist policies dominated U.S. foreign relations. Civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador from 1980 to 1992 created thousands of refugees, many of whom fled north seeking safe haven. The U.S. federal authorities considered the governments of these countries our allies in the anticommunist cause, and therefore they labeled as communist sympathizers anyone who fled their homes there. Most of the refugees were actually fleeing the violence of the civil wars and forced military service, which pitted neighbor against neighbor.

The refugees were not allowed to enter the U.S. and anyone who rendered them aid became a lawbreaker. Certain religious groups in Texas, however, publicly declared themselves sanctuaries for the refugees, believing that a higher authority of mercy and love had called them to help the helpless. The oral history project documented the motivations of several of the sanctuary movement organizers. The transcipts of forty-seven recorded hours of interviews with twenty-eight persons are available through the BUIOH digital oral history collection (click on Search Our Collection).

Jeffrey recently contacted many of the orginal interviewees and asked questions about their opinions on the movement from the perspective of twenty years later. All agreed that they had no regrets about their participation in providing sanctuary for the refugees. They agreed, however, that the time was a unique era that could not be repeated. The current anti-immigration sentiment in the nation, they said, is not just a government policy; it is a grassroots feeling that permeates society.

The Texas Sanctuary Movement was a response to an immediate crisis, and the oral history project recorded the movement in progress. If the researchers had waited twenty years to record interviews with participants, they would have found many were no longer living. Since 9/11, oral historians are doing more and more "emerging crisis" research. Baylor's Sanctuary Movement project was an early example of the value of getting the story when responses are immediate and passionate.




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