Sanctuary Unmasked: The First Time Los Angeles (Sort of) Became a City of Refuge

tags: immigration, Los Angeles, Central America, El Salvador, Sanctuary

Paul A. Kramer writes and teaches US history from transnational, imperial and global perspectives as an associate professor at Vanderbilt University, and writes for The New YorkerSlate, and other publications. His website is https://www.paulkrameronline.com/.

BEFORE THE SALVADORAN SOLDIERS started carrying American guns, and before a bomb took off her grandfather’s leg, Alicia Rivera had not been interested in finding refuge in the United States. Born in 1959, she had grown up outside the town of Suchitoto — it means “bird and flower” in Nahuatl — with five younger siblings in a peasant family with a plot of good land. Her mother was from town, and had insisted that she get an expensive, Catholic school education, although they could barely pay for it. The nuns favored the richer, lighter-skinned girls, but she was studious and thrived defiantly, proving especially good at English.

Then, violence came. “The terror kept growing around us,” she recalls. Home to thousands of disinherited peasants, the region was a stronghold for guerrillas fighting the oligarchic Salvadoran state, and an epicenter of state brutality. A boy she knew, who had been involved with the guerrillas, went into hiding. He slipped home one evening, and found his mother, father, and brother slaughtered at the dinner table. Rivera’s cousin disappeared. Her grandfather used his pull with a lieutenant-colonel, who let him search a truck loaded down with bodies. They found him, barely alive, tangled in a wire that had cut nearly to his bones.

Rivera decided to leave early in 1980. She was 21 years old. She had joined groups committed to Catholic social justice and had met Archbishop Óscar Romero. When a gunman aligned with the government shot him in the middle of a Sunday mass that March, she knew no one was safe.

She made it to Los Angeles, where a cousin helped her get a job at Winchell Donuts, and she shared a crowded apartment with friends from home. Los Angeles’s Pico-Union district and adjoining Alvarado corridor near MacArthur Park hummed with life, a vibrant Central America in exile. Vendors sold pupusas on the corners, and izote flowers out of their cars. Boomboxes pumped out cumbias and marimba music. Young men pulled televisions onto the stoops of cramped apartment buildings to watch soccer together on hot summer evenings. Trade union, student, and revolutionary activists from Central America carried their fight against authoritarianism across borders: gathering, remembering, and sustaining long-distance solidarities. Refugee relief agencies set up shop. Rivera found work translating for one of them and was soon at the center of a movement to transport and protect other refugees like herself: a movement for what activists were starting to call sanctuary.


Los Angeles had indeed openly declared itself a sanctuary city, briefly, once before. In the mid-1980s, at the height of a refugee influx from Central America, sanctuary activists had successfully pressured the Los Angeles City Council to affirm the separation of policing and immigration enforcement, and apply it to all city employees. On November 23, 1985, the Council narrowly passed an ambitious sanctuary resolution, the first of the United States’s largest cities to do so up to that point. Campaigners for refugee and immigrant rights across the country hailed the victory.

But something unexpected happened. Anti-immigrant political leaders stoked a popular backlash, whipping up frenzied hostility against immigrants as competitors and parasites, permanent outsiders and enemies of society itself. Sanctuary supporters on the Council, blindsided, had beaten a tactical retreat. They managed to preserve the resolution’s buffer between the INS, police officers, and other civil servants, but they undeclared sanctuary.

What remained after the storm cleared was like a sanctuary city, but less: a fog that, decades later, still shrouded Los Angeles’s exact location on the fragile map of immigrant welcome and safety. Was a city still a sanctuary if it didn’t allow itself to say so?

Los Angeles’s first sanctuary law grew out of the refugee wave that had brought Alicia Rivera to the city. By 1982, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 refugees from El Salvador — a country with fewer than 5,000,000 people — and tens of thousands of Guatemalans had fled to the United States to escape murder, poverty, and starvation. The 1980 Refugee Act codified a right to asylum for those with a “well-founded fear” of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or group membership. Migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala discovered their applications were almost always turned down, even as the doors were thrown open to refugees fleeing communist regimes.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books

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