The Power of Testimony: Lessons from the Sanctuary Movement

The Power of Testimony: Lessons from the Sanctuary Movement

By Natalia Barber '23; Image by Sydney Schaefer

As the nation looks to move forward after Trump’s presidency, we are forced to reckon with the damage that he left behind. Hoping to make good on his campaign promises of building a wall at the Southern border, Trump focused his efforts on dismantling the US immigration systemupon coming to office. Over the course of his term, his administration passed more than 400 executive orders on immigration. Beyond policy changes, Trump was also known for his abrasive rhetoric towards immigrants, which served as a highly visible example of accepted racist attitudes. Even before President Trump, the immigration system in the United States has not served the individuals it needs to. With a remarkably high volume of migrants attempting to cross the southern border, we need a revamped approach to immigration urgently. To move forward, a possible starting point for change lies in changing the hearts and minds of the American public. With the prevalence of misconceptions and false narratives of the “illegal alien,” US citizens are not aware of the realities of the difficulties of being undocumented in the US and the reasons they leave home. We need to combat misinformation and appeal to the compassion of the American people to create a tangible system for action. In the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement did just that. 

Through the Sanctuary Movement, a network of religious congregations offered legal and humanitarian aid to Central American refugees who were denied asylum. This movement was very effective at galvanizing individuals to act in order to protect asylum seekers, and it used the power of refugee testimony to bridge the divide between abstractly understanding problems and confronting the realities of the injustices occurring in the region. There was an urgency baked into these actions, as refugees from the Northern Triangle needed aid promptly. 

That urgency still exists today, just transposed into a different time and place. The Sanctuary Movement’s use of testimony to educate and cultivate empathy offers meaningful lessons for how we approach our broken immigration system post-Trump.

The Sanctuary Movement was accessible to anyone involved in a religious organization, opening up points of connection beyond those who would normally be involved with activism. Each congregation had to collectively decide whether or not they were going to become a “sanctuary,” creating a shared sense of commitment and an attainable framework of action. One of the movement’s most powerful tools to convince congregations to act was the use of testimony. The refugees themselves would appear in front of churches and share their stories, describing the conditions that led them to flee their home countries – violence and persecution flooded the region at the time. The testimonies were particularly powerful for their potential to educate and to draw on the emotions of parishioners.

The educational capacity of testimonies was twofold. For many, the circumstances that led to migration from Central America were theoretical and distant. By actually listening to the testimonies of asylum seekers, parishioners were presented with tangible evidence of abstract conditions; US citizens could no longer feign ignorance or close their eyes to the violence occurring across the border. Further, refugee testimony forced individuals to confront preconceived notions they may have held regarding undocumented immigrants. Such biases were best combated by engaging in conversations with the asylees themselves.

In addition to educating, the use of testimony appealed directly to the emotions of the congregation, calling on the sentiments of empathy and compassion that would spur support for offering sanctuary. Many individuals reported being deeply moved by the testimonies they heard; one activist stated, “I learn from other people’s journeys… Sending people to places across the country was invaluable as far as educating for change. I stand in awe [of them].” The emotional draw was strengthened by these testimonies being given through the church, as lessons in Christianity often center around loving your neighbor and helping those in need. When faced with a chance to act, Sanctuary Movement testimony provided a means to fulfill Christian promises of aid.

Ultimately, testimony bred understanding, which led to action. The process of listening to an individual share their story, often harrowing and always emotionally compelling, was incredibly powerful for forcing US citizens to confront their own positionality in the context of international suffering and injustice.

We are at a different juncture in time, but the same urgency and power in testimony still exists today. From a distance, we can understand the successes of the Sanctuary Movement and apply them to current efforts to support undocumented immigrants. The use of testimony served to educate and inspire action; Migration Encounters, a storytelling initiative co-headed by Haverford professors Anita Isaacs and Anne Preston, aims to realize those same goals today. Migration Encounters offers a pathway forward, similarly recognizing the transformative potential of testimony.

The project “collects, preserves and shares the stories of undocumented and returning immigrants in order to promote awareness of and solidarity with the migrant experience,” according to their website. The storyteller archive contains dozens of interviews with undocumented immigrants who returned to Mexico, either through deportation or ‘voluntary’ departure. In these interviews, many people express gratitude for the chance to share their stories, with hopes of raising awareness of the realities of their experiences.

One woman said she was grateful that Migration Encounters had been created, sharing that  “I really hope that it reaches a scope where everyone kind of becomes interested in this. I think that sometimes humans forget we’re all humans, and it doesn’t matter [where you’re from]… You just have to get to know the person.” 

Another man shared, “We’re not searching for compassion, what we are searching for is just to be treated as equals. Understanding, it’s a better word.” 

These interviews highlight the desire to be listened to and understood. Migration Encounters envisions a future where biases are overcome through a recognition of our shared humanity. Until US citizens can understand the realities of being undocumented, it is difficult to imagine policy that addresses them as real people. 

A man interviewed by Anne Preston said it best: “Thank you for doing this, for putting out our stories. People definitely need to know what we’ve been through so they have a bigger picture. We’re not all criminals. We all have, like, ups and downs because we’re humans. You can not be perfect. We’re humans, we’re all humans, and we all feel the same. Don’t look at us as a different race, look at us as humans because we’re all humans at the end.”

It will take years to undo the damage done under Trump, and the path forward appears long and arduous. But Migration Encounters offers an avenue for change. Their work begins the important work of harnessing the power of testimony to bring about social change, starting with sharing stories with the hopes of impacting policy. The project allows listeners to witness the people that come to the United States, the lives they create here, and the impacts that detention and deportation have on local communities. Paralleling the strategy used by the Sanctuary Movement, Migration Encounters centers and amplifies immigrant voices to combat political discourse that demonizes immigrants. By allowing migrants to tell their stories in incredible acts of vulnerability, audiences are granted perspective in the true stories of the migrant experience. There is no better way to show the American public the realities of undocumented immigration and inspire action than through the sincere testimony of immigrants themselves.

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