Apr 19, 2022 • 49M

Acts of Resistance and Faith: An Interview with the Rev. John Fife on Founding the Sanctuary Movement, and the Ongoing Struggle for Human Rights in the Borderlands

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Melissa del Bosque
The Border Chronicle podcast is hosted by Melissa del Bosque and Todd Miller. Based in Tucson, Arizona, longtime journalists Melissa and Todd speak with fascinating fronterizos, community leaders, activists, artists and more at the U.S.-Mexico border.
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Confused by competing messages about Title 42, and ever-changing immigration policies at the border? Our invited border experts will have some answers. Please join us this Thursday, April 21 for a discussion thread beginning at 10 am PT/ 11 am MT/ 12 pm CT/ 1 pm ET. Todd will host the discussion which will arrive in your email inbox at 10 am Pacific Standard Time (because we don’t do daylight savings in Arizona). From there you can type your questions or make a comment, or both!

We are excited to host this diverse slate of experts including Jesse Franzblau with the National Immigrant Justice Center, Noah Schramm with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, Blake Gentry with Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras (a southern Arizona organization that works in tandem with Casa Alitas a migrant shelter in Tucson), Immigration Journalist Gaby Del Valle, co-founder of Border/Lines (one of our recommended Substack reads for the latest on immigration policy), and Immigration Attorney Erika Pinheiro with the nonprofit Al Otro Lado.

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Acts of Resistance and Faith: The Reverend John Fife on Founding the Sanctuary Movement, and the Ongoing Struggle for Human Rights in the Borderlands

The Reverend John Fife watches the sun set at a samaritan base camp in the Sonoran Desert in July 2006. (Photo credit: Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty)


In the 1980s as civil wars raged in Central America, spurred on by U.S. government intervention, thousands of Central American refugees fled persecution and political violence, arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead of being granted political asylum, Central Americans were held in U.S. detention facilities then deported. Many to their deaths.

To save lives, the Reverend John Fife helped found the sanctuary movement, modeled after the 19th century Underground Railroad which ferried escaped slaves to freedom. Fife’s church, Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, was the first in the United States to give refuge to refugees from El Salvador. From that small church in Tucson grew an international sanctuary movement.


In 1985, the U.S. government indicted Fife and 10 others for violating U.S. immigration laws. Fife was deemed guilty and received five years’ probation. After the civil wars ended, and as migrant deaths began to mount in the Sonoran Desert, due to the U.S. policy of prevention through deterrence, Fife helped found the nonprofit No More Deaths which provides food, water, and aid to people migrating through the desert.

Now 83, Fife is pastor emeritus at Southside Presbyterian and still very much involved in humanitarian work in the borderlands. In this interview, Fife talks about how the sanctuary movement formed, the future of immigration policy and humanitarian work, and the long arc of history when it comes to acts of resistance and faith to create social change.

*A very special thanks to Ana Adlerstein for helping me record this interview with Rev. Fife at Southside Presbyterian and to Lilly Clark, our audio editor.

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