Founded in 1982 in response to civil wars in Central America, EBSC is now one of the largest affirmative asylum programs in the U.S. We continue to grow as part of the Sanctuary Movement. 

On March 24, 1982, the people of five Bay Area congregations and one in Arizona, despite the risk of arrest and imprisonment, publicly declared their commitment to provide Sanctuary for the 60,000 Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees fleeing violence and persecution by their own governments.

It was the second anniversary of the assassination of the Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, victim of the death squads, who died for his courageous stand against the oppressive government of El Salvador, a regime unfortunately supported by our own government.

By 1986, East Bay Sanctuary had grown to a 31-member organization whose mission was to “protect, support, and advocate” on behalf of Central American refugees, to end the military aid to both governments, and to educate the public about the reasons the refugees were requesting a safe haven. EBSC maintained a dual focus of responding to the needs of recently arrived refugees and supporting and protecting the rights of people persecuted in sending countries.

For many congregations, the declaration of sanctuary was a symbolic act. Congregations provided refugees with housing, direct services, and employment. Several congregations raised funds to secure the release of refugees detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and helped them apply for political asylum through our jail visitation program. Once refugees in detention were identified, staff, volunteers, and community members formed “circles of refuge” to raise bond money to release them from detention and to educate the wider public about their plight in an alien land.

To assist those living under oppressive regimes, EBSC monitored and protested human rights abuses, established sister parish communities, and provided “accompaniment” or international presence to support reparation. In May 1982, EBSC established the Central American delegation program, sending the first group to visit refugee camps in Honduras, to Mesa Grande, with 12,000 refugees, Colamoncugua, 8,000, San Antonio, 5000, and El Tesoro, 600 indigenous Guatemalans. Later delegations traveled to El Salvador and to the Mexican border, where refugees were detained, and to U.N. refugee camps in Southern Mexico, populated mostly by indigenous Guatemalans.

Advocacy involved working with sending countries to eliminate the causes of the plight of refugees. This meant working with allies across the U.S. to change U.S. foreign policy and end military aid to El Salvador and Guatemala through the legislative process and nonviolent action. Although peace accords were signed in El Salvador in 1989, and Guatemala in 1992, most asylum seekers were denied relief. New methods of advocacy were adopted as immigration policy changed.