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'Sanctuary: Who Belongs Here?' art exhibition asks about our border in a fraught time

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, April 1, 2024 - 1:56pm

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Items in glass cases with map in back
Miriam Davidson
University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s new exhibition “Sanctuary: Who Belongs Here?”

You’ve probably heard of groups like No More Deaths or Samaritans on the border. They leave water out for migrants and often get tangled up in the politics of the region.

Miriam Davidson is a journalist and author in Tucson who focuses on border issues. She wrote a history of the groups when she came to Arizona in the 1980s to write about the sanctuary movement.

She spoke to The Show about being the guest curator for the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s new exhibition “Sanctuary: Who Belongs Here?”

Full interview

MIRIAM DAVIDSON: During the early 1980s, there were civil wars going on in Guatemala and El Salvador and political refugees were coming to the U.S. border, people who had, were fleeing death squads, people who had been tortured, their family members had been murdered, people with really good cases for political asylum. And because our government was supporting the Salvadoran, Guatemalan governments with weapons. And so during the Reagan administration, so it was sort of this Cold War battle going on with the Salvadoran government and the Guatemalan government against rebels who were seen as being communists. So people fleeing that battle were not given political asylum, they were being arrested and deported back to El Salvador. And there were several cases that we knew of, of people who had been killed after they were deported.

So church people here in Arizona and in other places began protecting Salvadorans, Guatemalans from the U.S. government. And then in fact, helping them sneak across the border, and they were hiding them in their churches. And 1985, a bunch of them were indicted by the U.S. government for alien smuggling. And there was a big show trial here in Tucson, when I came out to Tucson to cover the trial for the Christian Science Monitor and the Religion News Service. And it was very big at the time. There was a sanctuary defense fund set up with Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez came and did concerts to help pay for the sanctuary defense. And ultimately, the church people were convicted of alien smuggling and other crimes for transporting them, because the U.S. government was able to prevent any discussion of why people were fleeing, of what the circumstances were, whether they had any alternatives. And a bunch of them remain convicted felons to this day.

And subsequently the sanctuary movement, people in Tucson began putting out water in the desert. There's groups like No More Deaths and Samaritans that sort of grew out of the sanctuary movement.

Woman with blonde hair and glasses
Aengus Anderson
Miriam Davidson.

LAUREN GILGER: Right, so these are groups that we still hear about today, but that's where they came from. I didn't even really know that history. That's fascinating. So you, as you said, came to Tucson to cover that, that sanctuary movement in the trial in the 1980s. You're still there now and still writing about these issues. As you put together this new exhibit at the UA and you're pulling from the archives, right, for it. What does it mean that you were looking at the borderlands through the lens of that sanctuary movement? What does that mean to you?

DAVIDSON: Well, I wanted to, well, I was asked to by the head of special collections. She wanted me to broaden the idea of sanctuary to not just what's happening with refugees and immigrants, but the formation of the border as a multicultural community. What happened to different ethnic groups that came to the border. Were they welcomed? Were they excluded? The border is a multicultural community.

And I found some really fascinating stuff in the archives that shows the history of inclusion and exclusion on the border, including, for example, a copy of a Chinese inspection agent diary from 1897 that that belonged to John Behan, who was the deputy sheriff of Tombstone and the local anti-Chinese inspector, whatever you would call him. After the Chinese came to build the railroads in the 1850, there was a big movement to kick them all out of the country again because they were competing with white people for jobs supposedly. So in 1886, there was a Chinese Exclusion Act, was passed. And so the Chinese were the first people who were officially excluded from the United States. So we have the copy of the diary of this guy who would get on trains and check Chinese people to see if they had proper documentation and then they would be arrested and deported if they didn't. And we're also looking at the Jewish community on the border, the Black community, the Mexican Americans and all these different groups.

GILGER: You mentioned one piece that you pulled there from the the library special collections. And you're getting at this idea of the multicultural history of this place, right? Give us a couple of other examples. What else did you pull?

Colorful map of Arizona and Mexico
Miriam Davidson
University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s new exhibition “Sanctuary: Who Belongs Here?”

DAVIDSON: Well, the border is also a place of movements for democracy movements, for social justice, like the sanctuary movement that came out of the border. I have materials on the environmental movement that's been very active here on the border of fights over mines. And I don't know if you've heard about this jaguar, they've found jaguars crossing the border and there's a lot of concern that mining and the border walls is preventing jaguars and also, you know, the free movement of animals across the border. So that's been a big issue.

I have materials on the labor rights. There was a deportation of miners in Bisbee in 1917. That was a pretty notorious incident where they rounded up several thousand striking miners and then put them on a train car and then drop them in the desert in New Mexico. So we have materials on that.

I also have materials on the Japanese internment because there are a couple of Japanese internment camps in Arizona, and one of the professors here at the University of Arizona was in charge of education for the camps. So we have a lot of materials looking at Japanese internment.

GILGER: Wow. So I mean, like, what are you, what are you getting at here with this multicultural history? Talking about the sanctuary movement and how it was sort of born out of that almost. What would you like people to glean from this?

DAVIDSON: That the border is a place where different groups have been welcomed, where social and environmental and economic justice movements have come out of the border, on both sides of the border as a matter of fact. In Mexico, the revolution was founded on the border, the border people, they are leading the way towards a new understanding of how we can get along with people of other cultures, how we can take care of each other.

Currently, as you know, there's big, big concern about the number of migrants that are arriving on the border and border. People are working hard to take care of these people and they've come under attack. The Catholic social services and other groups here that are working with migrants now. So we're just trying to show that the border is a place of sanctuary that we're trying to make it a place where people are welcome.

Outdoor multi-color sign
Miriam Davidson
University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s new exhibition “Sanctuary: Who Belongs Here?”

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