Ernesto Portillo Jr.
Aid to helpless Corbett's legacy
Elsa and José de Leon arrived in Tucson from Guatemala 18 years ago, fearful and uncertain about their future.
They had fled their country as the U.S-backed rightist government killed and tortured students, labor leaders, church activists and their relatives. The de Leons were targeted.
Their difficulties didn't end with their arrival in Tucson. They were here illegally. They had no food or bed.
They had only hope - and a friend named James Corbett.
Corbett, 67, who helped rescue thousands of Central American refugees as a co-founder of the international Sanctuary Movement, died Thursday.
His death is mourned by many who admired his conviction and compassion.
But none mourn his passing more than those who escaped the hell of Central America in the 1980s.
"His humanity was clearly evident," said Jose de Leon, 40, recalling his initial meeting with Corbett.
Elsa went straight to the heart of what Corbett meant to so many.
"If it weren't for him, we would not be here today. We would be dead," said Elsa, 38.
The death and suffering of Central Americans drove the philosopher/Quaker/goatherd to defy U.S. immigration law.
"For us, he was a symbol of security," José said. "He knew of the insecurity of the countries that we came from."
Corbett had help creating the underground railroad that stretched from Canada to Central America.
There were the Rev. John Fife, the Rev. Ricardo Elford and Lupe Castillo, among others. But it was Corbett, a quiet unassuming man, who gave the Sanctuary effort its moral grounding.
Had Corbett lived in the days of slavery, he would have been an abolitionist. Had he lived in Nazi Germany, he would have helped Jews escape the Holocaust.
"Just looking at him you could tell he had a defining character," said Carlos Enrique Alvarez, 53, uncle to Elsa de Leon.
Alvarez, a pharmacist in Guatemala, was one of the first in his family to seek sanctuary in the United States when he came in 1982.
Eventually, more than 50 members of the Alvarez and de Leon family would find refuge in Tucson.
Corbett made a point to meet with many of those who had escaped the
"He really wanted to identify with us. He really felt what we were feeling," Alvarez said.
This is Corbett's legacy. He inspired people to save one another. But his legacy goes even further. The Sanctuary movement saved dreams and ideals along with lives.
Most of the refugees helped through the Sanctuary movement are working, studying, graduating from high schools and colleges, and becoming U.S. citizens.
"I can now vote, and my vote can make a difference," said
Rina Nochez Lopez, who arrived from El Salvador in 1986 with her parents, a brother a and sister, and her 2-year-old son - today, an aspiring medical student.
In life, Corbett demonstrated unselfish grit in helping the powerless.
Today, you can find him at the end of every human hand extended to illegal immigrants.
* Contact Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 573-4242 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. He appears on "Arizona Illustrated" on KUAT-TV, Channel 6 at 6:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Fridays.