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Time to take a stand against deportation


Sanctuary movement workers -- who in the last decade gave shelter to thousands of refugees -- must again take a stand, this time to prevent possible mass deportations.

Unless President Clinton and Congress act to prevent it, thousands of refugees who fled Central America in the 1980s may again be uprooted, this time forced to return to countries where crime and poverty run rampant and old hatreds still smolder.

At risk are Salvadorans and Guatemalans who applied for political asylum under terms of the settlement of American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh, arising from a law suit intended to end discrimination against those two nationalities in the asylum process. Eighty religious and refugee assistance organizations banded together in the American Baptist Churches -- ABC -- suit.

Their asylum cases have been held in abeyance since the settlement was reached in December 1990 because of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's large backlog of pending asylum applications and because, until recently, most Salvadorans involved in the ABC suit were granted relief from deportation through the Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure programs.

With their asylum cases on hold, the refugees set about rebuilding their lives -- working, paying taxes, rearing families and integrating themselves into our communities.

Now, more than six years later, protected status is over for Salvadorans, and the INS was ready to move forward with ABC asylum cases beginning April 7.

Legal advocates fear that, due to harsh, new immigration laws and the end of civil war (though not the killing) in both El Salvador and Guatemala, many ABC class members may be denied asylum and ordered to be deported.

Such a scenario would be the ultimate injustice for these refugees who already have suffered greatly from our nation's flawed policies toward Central America during the 1980s.

Rather than admit that civilians were being massacred by armies trained and supplied by our government, the United States treated Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers like economic migrants. Between 1983 and 1989, only 2 percent of the Guatemalan and 2.5 percent of Salvadoran asylum cases were approved.

In contrast, asylum seekers fleeing governments opposed by the United States were more readily accepted. For example, 27 percent of asylum seekers from Nicaragua -- where the CIA orchestrated the Contra war against the ruling Sandinistas -- were granted during the same period, as were 73 percent from the former Soviet Union and 62 percent from Iran.

Plaintiffs in the ABC suit charged that political asylum was being used as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and that Salvadorans and Guatemalans were denied asylum in violation of the Refugee Act of 1980. The act establishes the right to asylum in the United States for immigrants who have a "well-founded fear of persecution" because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The INS agreed to settle the suit by allowing certain Salvadorans and Guatemalans, along with an estimated 150,000 who had already been denied asylum, to apply under a revised and, advocates hoped, more just system. By the end of the ABC registration period in 1991, some 280,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans had applied, and they have been waiting for a fair hearing ever since.

But now that the waiting is nearly ended, their chances of being granted asylum appear hardly better than in the 1980s. In fiscal 1996, the INS approved only 3.1 percent of the Salvadoran and 8.6 percent of the Guatemalan non-ABC cases, compared to 21.6 percent granted for all nationalities combined.

And thanks to new immigration restrictions that went into effect on April Fools' Day, most of those who are denied asylum will have no other means of avoiding deportation even though many have resided responsibly in the United States for a decade or longer.

The new laws eliminate suspension of deportation, a form of relief leading to lawful permanent resident status for undocumented immigrants of good moral character who had lived continuously in the United States for at least seven years and would experience extreme hardship if deported.

Under the new laws, suspension is replaced by "cancellation of removal." It requires 10 years of continuous residence and "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" if deported -- hardship not to the immigrants themselves, but to family members who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.

To say that deportation to El Salvador and Guatemala would be a hardship for ABC class members and their families is an understatement. Despite the peace accords, death squads and street gangs continue to take their revenge in both countries, placing these nations among the most violent in the world. The rate of homicides in El Salvador -- 114 per 100,000 persons compared to the U.S. rate of 11 per 100,000 -- outpaces the rate of killing during the Salvadoran civil war.

Well over half of Salvadorans live in poverty, while in Guatemala 66 percent of the work force is unemployed or underemployed and 75 to 85 percent of the population live in extreme poverty. More than half of El Salvador's national income comes from money sent by relatives in the United States, many of whom are ABC asylum seekers.

To flood these unstable countries with thousands of returning refugees will only worsen these problems, place lives at risk and undermine the fragile peace initiatives that are not yet fully realized.

President Clinton and Congress can prevent this injustice by granting lawful permanent resident status to all ABC class members now. Now is the time to flood our elected officials with letters and phone calls, demanding that justice be done.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997