Legacies and Origins of the 1980s US-Central American Sanctuary Movement


  • Hector Perla University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Susan Bibler Coutin University of California, Irvine




United States, El Salvador, Central America, Central American migrants, sanctuary, transnational framework, solidarity


 This article re-examines the US–Central American sanctu­ary movement of the 1980s. Our re-examination is motiv­ated by two factors. First, with the passage of time it is pos­sible to discern the movement’s origins in ways that could not be fully articulated while it was ongoing. We are able to show how certain relationships between the movement’s North and Central American activists were celebrated, while others were obscured due to fear for Salvadoran immigrant activists’ safety and concern about inadver­tently undermining the movement’s legitimacy. Specifically, we draw attention to the movement’s transnational nature, noting that what made it so powerful was its origin as part of a broader effort by Salvadoran revolutionaries to mobil­ize North American society to oppose US support for the Salvadoran government. Ironically, to achieve this objective Salvadoran immigrant activists had to stay quiet, become invisible, and abstain from taking certain leadership roles, while embracing identities that may have implied weak­ness or passivity, such as “refugee” or “victim.” Second, the US–Central American sanctuary movement provides powerful insight into future understandings of sanctuary as a concept and practice. The movement’s legacies extend beyond participants’ stated goals, while the movement’s transnational political and organizational focus differenti­ates it from current sanctuary practices. Thus, re-examin­ing its origins and legacies suggests that apparent similar­ities in the form of sanctuary incidents may hide underlying differences and that current sanctuary practices may also eventually have unanticipated consequences.


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2010-10-08 — Updated on 2010-10-09


How to Cite

Perla, H., & Coutin, S. B. (2010). Legacies and Origins of the 1980s US-Central American Sanctuary Movement. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees, 26(1), 7–19. https://doi.org/10.25071/1920-7336.30602 (Original work published October 8, 2010)



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