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Central America to Terrorism

In 1982, the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., began sheltering refugees who had become victims of violent struggles between guerillas and the U.S. -backed governments of Guatemala and El Salvador. The refugees were considered illegal immigrants and deported home, where they faced persecution.

The Sanctuary Movement grew out of the American public's increasing anger over U.S. support for the fighting. After President Reagan relaxed limits on FBI surveillance in 1983, the U.S. government set up Operation Sojourner to infiltrate the Sanctuary Movement. In January 1985, 16 people were indicted on 71 counts of conspiracy and transporting and harboring fugitives. The Sanctuary workers appealed, and the government eventually agreed to grant temporary protection to refugees already in the United States. The government's interest in conducting surveillance and collecting intelligence data expanded to include groups working on Central American issues.

This ushered in a new concern: terrorism. The 2001 USA PATRIOT Act was essentially a resubmission of the provisions rejected by Congress when enacting the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. This Act was passed largely in response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. The 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania prompted President Clinton to pledge a war on international terrorism.

Moments in History

1981-82: The American public becomes aware of U.S. support for the military governments in El Salvador and Guatemala through a congressional lawsuit against the Reagan administration for violating the War Powers Resolution.

1982: The Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., begins offering sanctuary to Central American refugees.

1983: President Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith, lifts restrictions (imposed by Attorney General Edward Levi in 1976) on the FBI's domestic surveillance activities.

1985: Based on information from informants and surveillance, 16 Sanctuary workers are indicted, and several convicted, for "transporting and harboring fugitives."

1989: After the Sanctuary defendants appeal, the government negotiates a settlement that allows a limited number of refugees to remain in the United States legally.

1996: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 is passed following the Oklahoma City bombing. Many proposed clauses that were left out are incorporated into the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act.

1998: U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are bombed in simultaneous attacks, killing over 200 people. President Clinton pledges a war on international terrorism.

Historians’ Perspectives

Geoffrey Stone
Geoffrey Stone
A Balancing Act. In the absence of a sense of genuine crisis, members of Congress ... (1:19)
Athan Theoharis
Athan Theoharris
Ending the Abuse of Power. If one looks at the 1970s, there was this concern to preclude future abuses ... (0:51)
Sanctuary and Political Surveillance. The sole restriction imposed upon the FBI from conducting political surveillance ... (0:58)