Throughout the 1980s nearly a million Central Americans crossed the U.S. border fleeing violently repressive dictatorships and seeking asylum. Official policy under the Reagan administration greatly hindered Central Americans from obtaining asylum status. Congress forbade foreign aid to countries committing human rights abuses, and, at same time, the U.S. provided funds, training and arms to the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments. Because admitting these governments' abuses would bar the U.S. from providing further aid, the Reagan administration instead argued that Central Americans were “economic migrants” fleeing poverty, not governmental repression.

In response to this the Sanctuary movement developed into over 500 churches and congregations in the United States which, by declaring themselves official “sanctuaries,” openly defied the government and committed to providing shelter, protection, material goods and often legal advice to Central American refugees. Part 1 of this podcast from 99% Invisible looks at the origins and faith-based rationale of the movement, and part details the surveillance and crack down of the US government. Part 2 continues the story.