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Rev. John Fife Continues Immigrant Humanitarian Work 25+ Years After Launching Sanctuary Movement

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A new movement is growing across the country to provide sanctuary to immigrants in response to the rise in deportations and work raids by the federal government. The growing network is being spearheaded by the Reverend John Fife, the founder of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the Reverend John Fife. A new movement is growing in this country to provide sanctuary to immigrants in response to the rise in deportations and work raids by the federal government. The growing network is spearheaded by Reverend John Fife, who’s founder of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. He was the minister, at the time, of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church for 35 years. The church was the first to offer sanctuary to undocumented workers, immigrants from El Salvador in 1981. That launched a movement that eventually provided sanctuary to thousands of Central Americans in over 500 churches and synagogues nationwide.

The government infiltrated John Fife’s group to gather evidence on the movement. In 1986, Fife was among eight activists convicted on various alien-smuggling charges. He served five years probation.

But he couldn’t be stopped. In 2002, he helped form the Samaritan Patrol, which is now part of the No More Deaths movement.

He joins us in Houston, was part of the ceremony at the Rothko Chapel on Sunday, where the young activists Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were awarded the Archbishop Romero Human Rights Prize. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

REV. JOHN FIFE: Thank you. Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, how does this movement now, as you continue to work with this movement, link to the movement that you and others began in the 1980s?

REV. JOHN FIFE: Bottom line in all of these activities is the government’s failure to observe human rights standards and the lives of literally thousands of poor, desperate people, whose lives are on the line because of government policy that ignores refugee rights, human rights, basic human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what was happening in the early 1980s, how you got involved with the Sanctuary Movement.

REV. JOHN FIFE: In the early 1980s, it was pretty simple. People fleeing the death squads and the repression and the massacres of entire villages in El Salvador and Guatemala were arriving at this border. The whole international community informed the United States government that they were refugees entitled to at least temporary asylum until conditions changed in their countries and they were able to return.

The United States government, because we were in political and economic and military support of the guys running the death squads and massacring entire villages in El Salvador and Guatemala, refused to recognize them as refugees; when they picked them up on the border or in communities across the United States, were placing them in detention centers, flying them back in handcuffs, and turning them over to the very guys who tried to kill them in the first place. So that process of deportation to death had to be resisted, and the Sanctuary Movement was that point of resistance by faith communities.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly did you do? When people fleeing political persecution came over the border, you harbored them in your church?

REV. JOHN FIFE: In the churches, in synagogues. A new underground railroad was formed to move people from the border to safer and safer places. Folks who were at highest risk we got to Canada, because Canada respected human rights and refugee rights, and if we could get them to the border with Canada, they would be resettled as refugees there.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to you? What was the government response?

REV. JOHN FIFE: Government infiltrated our churches and synagogues with undercover agents pretending to be volunteers.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you know that in your own church?

REV. JOHN FIFE: Well, we only knew it after we were indicted. The government had to inform us about the infiltration in order to proceed with the trial. So we only learned about it then.

AMY GOODMAN: So the people that you thought were volunteers, you then had identified as government infiltrators.


AMY GOODMAN: You were charged in 1986 with seven other activists.

REV. JOHN FIFE: Yeah, a real bunch of desperados. There were two Catholic priests and a couple of women, religious, and the director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council and myself and some others.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were convicted on what grounds?

REV. JOHN FIFE: On the grounds that the judge ruled we couldn’t say anything in our defense during the trial about five subjects: international refugee law, United States refugee law, conditions in El Salvador, conditions in Guatemala, or our religious faiths. So we didn’t put on a defense.

AMY GOODMAN: And you ended up with five years probation?


AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’ve continued the movement today.

REV. JOHN FIFE: The movement continues in another human rights crisis on the border. This time the government has instituted a border enforcement policy — walls and militarization and National Guard units — that literally uses death and death in the desert of migrants as a deterrent, as a deterrent to other people trying to cross. That’s a gross violation of human rights, this policy, this strategy of deterrence by death. And to resist that, we formed No More Deaths, that puts volunteers out in the desert to try to save as many lives as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend John Fife, can you talk about who was key in the government at that time in the 1980s, and where they are today?

REV. JOHN FIFE: The undersecretary of state for human rights then that literally was the government’s spokesperson for this policy of returning refugees back to death squads and repression was Elliott Abrams, and Elliott Abrams is now the point person for Mideast policy in the Bush administration. And the guy who was then ambassador in Honduras in Central America was literally ambassador to the contras during the Iran-contra scandal.

REV. JOHN FIFE: John Negroponte.

REV. JOHN FIFE: And literally — John Negroponte literally supported and funded and trained the death squads of the contras in that illegal and unconstitutional war, is now the point guy for Condoleezza Rice in the State Department on Mideast policy.

AMY GOODMAN: When he was made the ambassador to Iraq, Honduras pulled out of the so-called coalition in protest —

REV. JOHN FIFE: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: — given his record in the early 1980s.

REV. JOHN FIFE: The whole world should pull out and protest against people of this background and this kind of history being in charge of United States policy these days. They’re literally war criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if you heard the beginning of the broadcast on Luis Posada Carriles, who has been let out of jail, a New Mexico jail, a Texas judge letting him out on immigration charges, but he was working with the U.S. government, now clearly linked to the bombing of the Cuban airliner in 1976. What are your thoughts today on those who are allowed to walk freely in the streets of the United States and those who are captured, imprisoned, deported?

REV. JOHN FIFE: The United States is, has been for a long time, involved in the very terrorism and the very death squad activity that we profess to be so against, so opposed to. But yet, when you look carefully, the United States, as a matter of policy and as a matter of officials at the highest level, have been involved in not only illegal and unconstitutional violations of human rights and international law, but we have placed these guys in positions of high responsibility again and again and again. And if you look at the history of the Iran-contra scandal and that illegal activity, now you find the same people being in charge of Mideast policy. People of the United States need to understand that that kind of terrorism and that kind of criminal activity, literally war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by some of the leaders of our policy today — we’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what you’re doing today, what the Samaritan Patrol is, No More Deaths.

REV. JOHN FIFE: Where you begin to resist, and these efforts are not only humanitarian aid efforts, they’re communities of resistance to the kind of violations of human rights the government policy is involved in. And active resistance involves direct aid to the victims. It also involves speaking out and trying to get border policy, border enforcement policy changed so that we’re no longer involved in massive violations of human rights and all that death and suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to find out about the whole movement, where can they go online?

REV. JOHN FIFE: Pretty simple. is the website.

AMY GOODMAN: Shanti and Daniel were charged in July of 2005. It’s now more than a year and a half later. Are you seeing the same kind of government response today?

REV. JOHN FIFE: We’re seeing increased militarization, increased repression and, as a result, increased death and suffering on the border of some of the poorest and most desperate people who only come, want to come work and support their families, feed their children. This is criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re coming up on May Day, anniversary of some of the largest protests around immigration in this country. Do you see a change in atmosphere with Democrats now in charge of Congress?

REV. JOHN FIFE: Well, there is a change. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation is being seriously considered by the Congress this summer, and it’s critically important that this national debate and this reform of border policy begin to take some shape. But unfortunately, that legislation also involves more militarization, more walls, more —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the answer?

REV. JOHN FIFE: The answer is pretty simple. This is a phenomenon — the migration of workers between Mexico and the United States — that benefits both countries. We’ve got to be able to document that. And we ought to document the exploited undocumented workers who are already here, who are part of our communities, part of our churches, part of our schools, important parts of our whole economy and community. We ought to document not only the migration of those workers, but those workers and their families who are already here, and restore this country to a community.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I just flew in from Chicago, and it was interesting. I think it was the Chicago Tribune. I just read the piece in the plane about Filipino workers going abroad to places like Saudi Arabia and others, and how significant their remittance, sending back money, is to their country. It tops tourism. It is so significant that when workers come back to the Philippines, in some cases, at the airport they roll out the red carpet for them, and the president of the Philippines comes to greet them.

REV. JOHN FIFE: We ought to roll out the red carpet from this side of the line, as well, because those workers and their labor are essential for the well-being of our communities and our nation and our economy. It ought to be seen as a blessing and a privilege for both sides of the border, that migrant workers be able to move with legal documents and temporary documents back and forth so that their families and their work is valued to the extent that it ought to be. That’s the truth of the matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend John Fife, I want to thank you very much for being with us, founder of the Sanctuary Movement, as well as the movement today, No More Deaths. He was the pastor at the Southside Presbyterian Church for 35 years in Tucson, Arizona.

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