The tragic story of the thousands of refugees from Syria and other troubled Middle Eastern countries experiencing horrific civil wars and religious persecution has confronted the receiving European countries with both a legal and moral implications. The legal ones have to do with whether to consider these people as legitimate political refugees under international law, standards that define a refugee as someone who, if returned to his or her home country, would be likely to face persecution, including torture and death.
The moral considerations have to do with a sense of humanity in helping out fellow human beings who are in dire need, including families and children. The morality in the case of Europe is based on Christian and Jewish traditions of supporting the children of God. In the case of the current wave of refugees, there is little question that they are legitimate political refugees given the untenable conditions in Syria, for example, with the country torn apart by the varied warring factions. Having said that, some of the eastern and southern European countries such as Hungary are challenging the legitimacy of the refugees by countering that that they are attempting to go to the more developed countries such as Germany primarily for economic reasons and not because they face oppression at home.
Under this argument, these countries feel no moral incentive to help the refugees. These divided feelings are not only shared by some European governments but also by some of their people. Fortunately, most European countries, led by examples of Germany and Sweden, are doing the right thing. They recognize the Syrians and others as legitimate refugees and have expressed a moral incentive for helping them. The same is true for many Europeans throughout the European Union. It is gratifying to see Germany, for example, committing itself to accepting as many as 800,000 of these refugees because it is the legal and moral thing to do.
What Germany and most of the European Union is doing contrasts with how the United States has reacted in its more recent history to similar situations; it has been found wanting. I’m thinking of how in the 1980s, the Reagan administration refused to recognize and accept thousands of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala fleeing their own civil wars and the repression, torture and killings by the military and death squads in their countries. The Reagan administration refused to recognize the Central Americans as legitimate refugees under both international and U.S. laws by arguing that these people were just more “illegal aliens” trying to come into the United States for solely economic purposes.
Almost every country in the world recognized the Central Americans as legitimate political refugees, except the United States. Why? Because the Reagan administration supported politically and militarily the repressive governments in El Salvador and Guatemala. These were client states of the U.S. who in Cold War terms were anti-Communist and therefore had to be supported, even if these governments were anti-democratic and authoritarian. The recognition of the people fleeing these countries as legitimate refugees would be a criticism of the very governments that the U.S. supported, and the Reagan administration was not going to do this. Regan, in a sense, was following President Franklin Roosevelt, who unfortunately in the 1930s supported some of these dictatorships in Central America such as that of Anastasio Somoza García in Nicaragua. Of Somoza, Roosevelt said: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
The attitude and policies of the Reagan administration was a shameful rebuff of international law on refugees as well as an expression of immorality. It was what Catholic liberationists would call a “social sin.” Like the Syrians and other refugees flowing into Europe today, the Central Americans without question were legitimate refugees, and the political and moral reaction by the U.S. government in the 1980s should have been to accept and support them. Regrettably, Ronald Reagan was not Angela Merkel. Fortunately, many other Americans, especially in their churches and synagogues, politically and morally did the right thing and assisted the almost one million Central American refugees by coming to their support in what came to be known as the sanctuary movement. Many Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations defied the Reagan administration and provided shelter and assistance to the Central Americans. They criticized the Reagan administration for in effect breaking the law by not applying the 1980 Refugee Act passed by the U.S. Congress that defined political refugees under international law. Under this refugee law, it was clear that the Central Americans were legitimate political refugees. The sanctuary movement also addressed the moral issue by in effect saying “there is a higher law that we are accepting and that is God’s law” with respect to the refugees.
In Los Angeles, where by the mid-1980s close to half a million Central American refugees relocated, the sanctuary movement was led by a charismatic and committed Catholic priest by the name of Fr. Luis Olivares (whose biography I’m writing). As pastor of what was popularly referred to as La Placita Church in downtown L.A., Olivares in 1985 proclaimed his church as the first and only Catholic church in Los Angeles as a sanctuary church. Unlike most other churches and religious congregations affiliated with the sanctuary movement, La Placita Church actually allowed the refugees to sleep in the church and in its hall overnight in addition to feeding and clothing them. Moreover, Olivares and his staff, including Fr. Michael Kennedy, provided medical care and attempted to find work for the refugees.
Although La Placita could only help a small percentage of the refugees, still it was a remarkable display of Christian love and fulfillment of the meaning of the Gospel. La Placita and the sanctuary movement were doing what the Reagan administration should have done and what, to their credit, many in the European Union are doing now with the Middle Eastern refugees. The Obama administration should emulate not only this history of the sanctuary movement, but also what Germany and the other European countries are doing to fulfill international law on refugees and the humane, moral thing to do. Beginning with the Bush’s administration unjust and unnecessary war in Iraq, the U.S. laid the groundwork for this refugee crisis, and the U.S. today has a responsibility to address a refugee problem that it helped to create.
[Mario T. García is Professor of History and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of many books on Chicano history.]