Founded in 1982 in response to civil wars in Central America, EBSC was an early participant in the Sanctuary Movement in the U.S. Now, EBSC is one of the largest affirmative-asylum programs in the U.S. To learn more, see our Timeline of the Early Sanctuary Movement.
On March 24, 1982, the people of five San Francisco Bay Area church 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 from their own governments.
This date was significant because 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 U.S. government.
By 1986, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant had grown to a 31-member organization with a mission to “protect, support, and advocate” on behalf of Central American refugees, to end military aid to Salvadoran and Guatemalan 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 these countries.
For many church congregations, the declaration of sanctuary was a symbolic act. Congregations provided refugees with housing, direct services, and employment. 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. Staff, volunteers, and community members formed “circles of refuge” to raise bond money to release refugees from detention and to educate the wider public about their plight.
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 visitors to the refugee camps in Honduras, Mesa Grande (12,000 refugees), Colamoncugua (8,000), San Antonio (5,000), 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 these 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 in Guatemala in 1992, most asylum seekers were denied relief. New methods of advocacy were adopted as immigration policy changed.