Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Quakers in the Sanctuary Movement

Between 1980 and 1991, nearly one million Central Americans fled political repression and violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua and sought asylum in the US. For much of that time, however, the US government maintained a policy of characterising these refugees as ‘economic migrants’ and refused them asylum.

Founded in 1980 by two Quakers and a Presbyterian minister from Tucson Arizona, the Sanctuary Movement provided legal, financial and material aid to these refugees, in open defiance of US Federal Law. From Arizona, the movement spread to other parts of the US and into Canada. As well as Quakers, the Sanctuary Movement involved Catholic, Presbyterian and other congregations - over five hundred of which eventually declared themselves official “sanctuaries” for refugees with no legal documents.

For Quakers Jim Corbett and Jim Dudley, their involvement began with Dudley’s chance encounter in 1981 with a hitchhiker who turned out to be a Salvadoran refugee. When their car was stopped by a US border patrol and the hitchhiker was arrested, Corbett and Dudley began to question why their government was returning people to what they both knew to be the scene of a cruel and bloody war.

Corbett began working with Catholic priests on either side of the Mexican-US border. Dressed in black and calling himself ‘Padre Jaime’, Corbett would travel across the border to visit refugees in prison in Mexico, taking them food and other supplies and helping to explain their legal rights in the US.

To begin with, Corbett sought to work within the law, accompanying refugees to make their application for asylum in the US, knowing that it would be refused but that they would be released into the custody of local ministers while their appeals were held. However, in June 1981, the US authorities began pursuing a policy of arresting asylum seekers and returning them to jail in Mexico.

Appalled, Corbett began smuggling refugees across the border himself, seeing this as a natural succession to the Underground Railroad movement through which Quakers a century earlier had helped escaping slaves. When he ran out of places to shelter people, he persuaded Presbyterian minister John Fife to open his church to them.

Eventually, in March 1982, when legal action against Corbett and others seemed imminent, Fife’s church became the first of many across the country to ‘declare sanctuary’. As Corbett told a news conference that day, “We will not cease to offer the sanctuary of the church to undocumented people from Central America. Obedience to God requires this of us.”

The movement maintained policies of not working with the ‘coyotes’ (the paid guides who profited from bringing refugees in the US) and of giving assistance equally to refugees from either side in the conflicts.

In 1983, Canadian Friend, Nancy Pocock, visiting Texas with the Inter-Church Committee for Refugees, realised that Canada could provide an alternative place of refuge for those fleeing Central America. This was the beginning of a parallel ‘overground railway’ – a network of legal channels by which refugees were passed to supporters in Canada. ‘Mama Nancy’s’ own home in Toronto continued to provide temporary shelter for refugees until her death in 1998.

In 1986, the US Justice Department indicted eleven members of the Sanctuary Movement, including Jim Corbett, on charges of conspiracy and encouraging and aiding “illegal aliens to enter the United States by shielding, harboring and transporting them.” The prosecution’s evidence rested largely on testimony of an informer and the defendants were not allowed to submit testimony regarding religious or humanitarian motivation. Eight were convicted and given suspended sentences. But the Sanctuary Movement continued to grow until, in 1990, Congress passed legislation allowing the president to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to groups in need of a temporary safe haven, giving legal protection to the refugees.

The original Sanctuary Movement dissolved, but since 2007, the New Sanctuary Movement – which had again involved many Quaker and Catholic congregations – has endeavoured to protect immigrants against ‘hate, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation.’

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Further Reading and Credits

Further reading
  • Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement, by Miriam Davies
  • God and Caesar at the Rio Grande: sanctuary and the politics of religion, by Hilary Cunningham


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