Orange County’s Sanctuary City Amnesia

I was born in Los Angeles in 1995, and California has been my home ever since. I’ve always felt a lot of pride in claiming my roots here. I was born into a society of diverse, open-minded individuals, and I was brought up to be someone who empathizes with many different kinds of people.

My parents were not born in the U.S. They were born in El Salvador. They migrated individually to California when they were in their teens. It is because of them that I am here, attending UC Irvine, working toward a better life for both my parents and my future children.
When I think of what it means to find sanctuary, I think of safety. I think of what my parents must’ve yearned for growing up in a country torn by war, where the sounds of bullets were as common sounds of birds chirping in the morning, or where the sight of dead bodies lying on the side of a road was as common as it is for me see the succulents that adorn the streets of Southern California.

Ironically, those who are against so-called “Sanctuary Cities” in the U.S. and, in particular, here in Orange County, also speak of concerns for public safety. It’s as if those who seek sanctuary cities and those who oppose them are looking for the same thing at the end of the day. Everyone just wants to feel safe.

It’s too easy to call someone racist. Sometimes I feel like Orange County, a world that still feels very foreign to me (and that sometimes makes me forget I’m still only 45 minutes away from my parents’ home) maybe isn’t racist. Maybe it’s not my skin tone, the way my body is shaped, the way I speak Spanish or the foods I eat. Maybe it’s not because people like me aren’t white Americans but brown Latin Americans with Native American roots. Maybe it’s not even because many of us are poor. I don’t think Orange County suffers from racism; I think they suffer from amnesia.

I think that they forgot about the ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan was president, and his administration funded the Salvadoran Civil War. What started off as pleasant and student-led protests culminated in a full-blown war when Oscar Romero, a well-known priest who spoke in favor of the poor and marginalized, was gunned down during mass. Romero had spoken against the repressive tactics of the Salvadoran government, known for silencing protests through the use of death squads. Thirty one people were massacred during Romero’s funeral.

The U.S. established the School of the Americas (a military training institution funded by U.S. taxpayers), where allies throughout Latin America, or in this case, Salvadoran soldiers, were strategically taught how to torture and murder their own people in the name of counterinsurgency. The man who assassinated Romero, Roberto D’Aubuisson, was trained at the School of the Americas.

The United States provided large amounts of military aid during the war that lasted between 1980 and 1992. Roughly 75,000 people died, most of who were innocent civilians, and many others disappeared.

Not surprisingly, thousands upon thousands of Salvadorans fled their homes and sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Mexico. Many fled towards the U.S., where they had family members and support networks. My parents were in this group. My mother was 18, and my father was 15. My father was told he would have to join a death squad or be killed. He left to Los Angeles soon after. My mother was smuggled through various coyotes, people who are paid to bring immigrants to the U.S., and deported multiple times in Mexico. They arrived to Los Angeles eventually. And long story short, here I am.

But my parents were lucky. They had family members who had been living in the U.S. for some time and could sponsor them. They were able to gain some legality rather quickly. Others were not.
When Salvadoran refugees applied for asylum, the United States denied them on the basis that they were economic migrants and not refugees. This was America’s way of denying explicit involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War. If they had granted asylum to the waves of Salvadoran refugees, then it meant that the U.S. had certainly engaged in human rights violations.
The U.N. found that the Salvadoran state had committed 85 percent of civilian killings, which primarily happened in rural areas, regions where most of the refugees came from.

As a response to this injustice, San Francisco led the way in protests against the federal government. They decided to call themselves a sanctuary city after they passed an ordinance stating they would not cooperate with federal immigration officers in detaining Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. The people at the forefront of this cause were Central American activists and church leaders, such as those who joined the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley and Father Luis Olivares in Los Angeles. Just as it had been in El Salvador, the campaign to provide safety for the poor and marginalized was not only a political one but a religious one, in which over 500 congregations from various denominations were involved. It was a cause rooted in compassion, the understanding that my need for safety is just as important as yours.

Orange County, when did you forget all of this? Why does the word “sanctuary” now boil your blood? Is it because safety is only your concern when it applies to white Americans, or is it because you forgot that I am your neighbor, too, and just maybe, our safety is connected?

Lilibeth Esmeralda García is a third-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at