Sanctuary is a play based on real events and real people. In this opening scene, we meet Carol and Mica as they set out to investigate what they believe to be a refugee crisis in 1981. They have uncovered harsh truths about Central Americans, mostly Salvadorans, fleeing war. They are being detained by border patrol under the US Immigration and Naturalization Service's orders and are being coerced against political asylum applications. Mica and Carol set out to help refugees apply for political asylum, but first they must convince the detainees one by one that they can be trusted.


I emigrated from El Salvador in 1981. I was eight years old when I landed in San Francisco, CA, with documents, seven months after my parents arrived. That's how long it took them to prove their solvency to the US government. I had never heard of the sanctuary movement from my parents or other Salvadoran immigrants. I didn't learn about it in high school, college, or graduate school. Tucson, AZ, historian Lupe Castillo informed me of the movement when I interviewed her for my play about the movement to save the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. It moved me deeply to know that people in the United States had compassion for Central American immigrants. I wished I'd known that bit of history earlier. I'd spent so much of my life feeling invisible and out of place. Here was this important part of US history that included Salvadorans. I knew I had to share the story. It brings us Central Americans out of the shadows and is extremely relevant to what is going on along the southern border today.


The play starts in March 1981. Mica and Carol—characters based on Lupe Castillo and Margo Cowan, who worked with migrants at the Manzo Area Council—have become aware of detained Salvadorans fleeing war and seeking political asylum. Not even a year prior, over the Fourth of July weekend in 1980, 26 Salvadorans attempted to cross the Sonoran Desert. Only 13 survived. The incident made national news and happened in Tucsonans' backyard. The headline news shook people because of the number of deaths and because the people were middle class, including university students. Castillo and Cowan were the first to figure out what was really happening to Salvadorans fleeing war, people who under different political circumstances would be considered refugees. They weren't because Ronald Reagan aided the government the migrants fled with military personnel and funds in the name of democracy even though the Salvadoran government was an oligarchy led by 14 families. In the play we see Carol and Mica enlist their respected friend, a charismatic Presbyterian reverend, and the rest is history as they say.


Act One, Scene One

1981. A dimly lit visitation area in one of Tucson's border patrol detention centers. Carol and Mica sit at the table. We hear a Border Patrol Agent masturbating on the other side of the plastic window. He is nearly finished. Carol rifles through paperwork, ignoring him. Mica sits with arms crossed and looks off to the side in disgust.


He laughs. A door opens and closes. We hear his footsteps trail off in the distance.

MICA (loudly): That's harassment!

Carol waves her off. She's busy studying the papers. Mica speaks softly in an attempt to not be heard. They continue in this manner unless otherwise noted.

MICA: There's got to be some sort of complaint we can file.

CAROL: Why waste our time?

       She writes on the document.

MICA: He can't get off this easily.

CAROL: I believe he just did.

MICA: This is serious.

CAROL: Damn right it is. And we have bigger fish to fry.

MICA: I suppose … One moment of degradation is nothing compared—

CAROL: Don't get me wrong, that was a violation. And we're citizens! (pause) Can you imagine what they do to the “bodies.”

MICA: I still can't believe that's the language they use.

CAROL: To them they're “aliens.”

        Mica sighs.

CAROL: We're not backing down. Not until we piece this together.

MICA: We've been back here three days now!

CAROL (looks up at Mica): They want us to go away.

   Carol holds her in a determined “you understand me” gaze.

CAROL: That last attempt shows how desperate they're getting. They're trying to—

We hear the Border Patrol Agent's footsteps walking back. A door opens and closes. They go back to speaking in a normal volume.

MICA: I'm taking notes. So you better get Mr. Rivera here unless you want the ACLU involved. I'm sure they'd love to hear what's going on in here.

BORDER PATROL AGENT (OS): As you see we have our hands full.

   Carol darts an “I told you so” glance at Mica. Mica sits.

CAROL (anchors herself down on the chair): We'll wait until he's available (canned smile).

BORDER PATROL AGENT (OS): Suit yourself.

MICA: We'll see.

  Carol goes back to speaking softly. They continue in this manner unless otherwise noted.

CAROL: Let's not prod them anymore than we have to.

MICA: I don't understand where you find the patience for this.

CAROL: Think about the long game.

MICA: I can reason it in my head but when my blood boils—

CAROL: And that's what they expect. So do the unexpected. Thrive.

MICA: Thrive?

CAROL: Thrive in their bullshit.


MICA: I might as well start grading papers.

CAROL: Good.

    Mica pulls out her briefcase and starts working.

     They work in quiet resistance for a bit.

    They continue working in quiet resistance.

They work in quiet resistance until the Border Patrol Agent can't take it.

BORDER PATROL AGENT (OS, sighs): Bring him in.

We hear two sets of footsteps coming down the hall. We hear a door open and close. A set of footsteps walks off. Another door opens and closes. Victor Rivera enters. He limps a bit.

MICA: Yo soy Mica y ella es Carol.

       Victor nods.

Sound effect to signal that we hear English although the scene is actually happening in Spanish. Sometimes they say a word or two in Spanish to remind us the scene is actually happening in Spanish.

CAROL: Carmen told us about her cousin, Mario, who was caught by border patrol. He told us about you.

MICA: All this time she's been coming to the center, we didn't know she was Salvadoran.

VICTOR (without thinking): We're so used to lying about who we are.

      Victor looks at the window.

MICA: You don't have to do that anymore.

VICTOR: I'm not working with anyone.

     Victor checks the window again.

CAROL: Jailing you without the option of political asylum violates the United Nations refugee act.

MICA: We can't stand by and watch it happen.

CAROL: No one knows it's happening.

VICTOR: I didn't do anything to anybody.

MICA: You can help your case by telling your story.

VICTOR: Maybe you're working with the government and you're here to see how much I talk against them.

CAROL: The Salvadoran government?

     Victor nods a cagey “yes.”

MICA: I never thought of that.

      Carol nudges her.

CAROL: Do you think the Salvadoran government would have people here?

    Victor nods a barely noticeable “yes.”

CAROL: I don't think they have the resources to do that.

MICA: This is the United States. It still means something—

CAROL: Maybe at the Salvadoran embassy but we don't work with them.

    She shows him her notes. The papers.

CAROL: I've been working day and night trying to crack this. And I think we can work magic.

MICA: Not like curanderas. Not brujeria.

CAROL: Well maybe a little bit.


CAROL: The Virgin de Guadalupe is my legal partner.

MICA: She got out of an indictment. The Feds—the United States government wanted to charge her with a crime—for helping migrant workers from Mexico get access to food and healthcare. … For helping them become citizens.

VICTOR: Are you a social worker?

CAROL: An advocate.

MICA: She runs Manzo Area Council. The Federal government pays for it and they wanted to fire her. Because of the charges against her. They said she was “aiding and abetting, harboring aliens”—

CAROL: Aliens my ass. They've been traveling back and forth on this land for generations. It's all Sonoran desert. Mexico, the US that came later.

MICA: Anyway, they didn't fire her. They couldn't. The community wouldn't let them and the government dropped the charges.

CAROL: Like I said La Virgen de Guadalupe is my legal partner.

VICTOR: You got away with it?

CAROL (insulted): I offered a solution to an ongoing problem. There was nothing to get away with.

MICA: It's true.

CAROL: Anyone who thinks otherwise has their head up their ass.

      Victor laughs.

MICA: She took some heat for it, but the community spoke up for her.

CAROL: And that's what we mean to do here.

She looks into his eyes, “you understand.” Victor understands. He checks the window again.

MICA: Oh they're listening alright but don't you worry.

(loudly): We still have some semblance of law and order around here.

CAROL (turns to Mica and pauses for a moment): Not sure we needed that.

    Then she leans in toward Victor.

CAROL: It helps to tell us what's going on.

MICA: How are they treating you?

VICTOR: My feet are blistered.

MICA: Did they bandage them?

       He shrugs.

VICTOR: They haven't done anything about it. Maybe when the nurse comes in Monday.

CAROL: How bad are they?

VICTOR: I ripped a piece of t-shirt and wrapped my feet.

MICA: Good. You don't want them to get infected.

       He nods.

VICTOR: I asked for political asylum.

MICA: And?

VICTOR: It doesn't work. They just want me to sign their form. But I don't read in English.

CAROL: Did they tell you what the form is for?

      Victor nods “no.”

VICTOR: It looks like those …

CAROL: Did they give you the option to make a phone call?

      Victor nods “no.”

VICTOR (then): They said I'll get a phone call if I sign the form.

     Carol writes on her note pad.

CAROL: I believe it's a voluntary deportation form. It makes it so they can send you home right away—

MICA: Which they seem hell bent on—

CAROL: Because you're not a citizen they think you don't have rights to know about.

    Victor locks eyes with Carol and nods.

MICA: What gets me is how sneaky it all is. It took two brains and a graduate degree to find our way through this mess.

CAROL: Mica's a history professor. And a damn good researcher.

MICA: And if it wasn't for Carmen, we wouldn't know about any of it.

CAROL: We're here to help you apply for political asylum. Could you tell the others about us?

    He hesitates and looks at the window.

MICA: Carol figured out what papers to file.

CAROL: You'll get out of here and have a hearing. In the meantime, you won't be deported.

MICA: Do you have a place to stay?

VICTOR: Here? (nods “no”)

     Carol and Mica make eye contact.

VICTOR: The road from the Ilopango airport is known as the road of death. Because that's what happens to you when you're sent back.

CAROL: That alone is grounds for political asylum.

      Carol shows him the form.

CAROL: That's what this is for.


MICA: Help us help you.

VICTOR: The mara—

CAROL: The mara?

VICTOR: All of us—we've been talking about a hunger strike for better conditions and so that we can apply for political asylum.

CAROL (impressed): Good.

MICA: Please tell them about us.

(then): Victor, we need to know your story so we can file for political asylum.


VICTOR: My grandfather owned a clothing factory. His son, my uncle, was a union organizer. My grandfather called the death squad on him in '78 and they disappeared him. After that mi mamá had nothing to do with my grandfather. On my way to school, I'd pass by the soldiers guarding the corner. They'd call me a mama's boy. Get so close I could smell the alcohol on their breath, pressuring me to join them. Every day they'd be there, waiting for me. They said my letter was coming and then I'd be under their thumb. Mamá saw that and used my grandfather's name to send me to Canada with money, passport, and visa.

MICA: When was that?

VICTOR: 1980.

(then): I was caught the first time in Nogales, Sonora. I asked for political asylum but they just laughed at me, called me a pendejo and asked for money. I didn't have any left so they took my visa. Kept me in jail for a month and then sent me to Ciudad Mexico. I was in that jail a few more months. And then I got sent to Guatemala with a busload of Salvadorans. I turned around right away. It was bad there too. I had to run under the bridge, dodging police bullets to cross the border. An Indian family in Chiapas took me in for four months and showed me how to do construction work. After a while I took a train to Guaymas. I made a friend there while doing construction work. We tried to cross three times, but each time we got sent back to Mexico.

(pause): I got real good at acting Mexican.

(recalling): On the fourth try, my friend and I got separated. My feet were sore and bloody. I was so hungry I couldn't think. The border patrol found me. I forgot to pretend to be Mexican.

MICA: Now we can file your application. We want to do this for as many people as we can.

CAROL: We need a couple of names so we can ask for them next.

      He considers it.

     He writes in the notebook.