El Centro, Calif. — The 491 men in this cinder-block and chain-linked desert detention center are caught in the finer lines of US immigration policy. They are from Tonga, Ghana, China, Pakistan, and myriad other countries -- trying to find a wrinkle, tuck, or loophole in immigration law that will let them through.
But the largest group, more than a third of those here, is Salvadorean.
An invigorated debate has developed over how the United States should deal with the estimated half-a-million Salvadoreans in this country illegally. It has been sparked by the Sanctuary Movement of churchpeople to shelter Central Americans.
How many Salvadoreans should the US be trying to absorb? Are US standards for political refugees being fairly applied? Is it humane to send Salvadoreans back to a dangerous country?
The people here, and at five other detention centers in the US, are appealing their deportation orders rather than leave voluntarily. Most Salvadoreans at the center here were caught by immigration officers, then applied for political asylum. Experience shows that very few will get it.
For the rest, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) will buy one-way, coach-fare airline tickets to El Salvador -- a country still suffering from civil war and random violence.
The Sanctuary Movement's response has been to shelter these Salvadoreans (as well as Guatemalans) from what it considers an unfair, even illegal, US law.
Many US legislators propose making a special case for Salvadoreans, granting them temporary safe haven until the strife in El Salvador subsides.
The President or the attorney general could grant temporary safe haven now, but neither is so inclined. El Salvador is violent, but not as violent as it has been made out to be, according to the administration. Many US legislators agree.
``We cannot absorb everybody on the planet who is in trouble,'' says Laura Dietrich, deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights. ``It's sad, but it's true.'' The US cannot invite all 5 million Salvadoreans to migrate north, even if their country is dangerous, she says.
For individual Salvadoreans, there can be different reasons for leaving their country, for coming to the US, and for staying.
Consider Obdulio: a grave young Salvadorean who belongs to the Assembly of God church, which does not permit the bearing of arms.
As Obdulio tells it, he came under increasing pressure from both sides of the Salvadorean civil war to join in the fight, until his poor but worried parents gave him 250 colones (about $100) to flee the country.
The Mexican authorities caught him once, so he went further north to the US. Lost and confused, he encountered a fellow member of the Assembly of God church in San Bernardino, Calif., who took him in for most of a year.
That was 1981. In the meantime, Obdulio has married an American citizen, learned a vocation in a machine shop, and settled in Colton, east of Los Angeles.
But in December, he was on his way to pay a traffic ticket when he was motioned over to an INS van and apprehended. Rather than leave for El Salvador voluntarily, he has applied for political asylum.
Obdulio lives far better in Colton than he ever did in El Salvador. Meanwhile, his mother wrote him in 1982 that a brother had been killed, and that conditions were worse than ever.
But even if the fighting were finished there, the danger gone, would he return to El Salvador of his own accord?
He ponders this question long and seriously. He is not sure. ``I believe in God, and I think that he will guide me then,'' he answers in Spanish.
Is Obdulio a migrant who has skirted US immigration law to seek a better job and living conditions? Or is he a refugee from persecution for his religious beliefs, political neutrality, or both?
Whatever the decision in Obdulio's case, there are undoubtedly elements of both among his reasons for living in the United States.
Some in the US, including Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona and Rep. John Joseph Moakley (D) of Massachusetts, say they feel that the reasons Salvadoreans like Obdulio have come to the US are irrelevant.
No one, according to these legislators, should be sent back into conditions as violent as those in El Salvador.
There are Salvadoreans at the detention camp here who say they will not survive long if sent back. One, a middle-aged former teacher and politically active union member, left El Salvador in 1979. If returned to the San Salvador airport, he says, ``I am sure I wouldn't even make it to my house.''
According to the State Department, the US deports about 300 Salvadoreans a month. The deportees are met at the airport in El Salvador by members of a Geneva-based human rights organization, the Intergovernmental Committee on Migration, which aids them in resettling.
The Moakley-DeConcini bill would suspend for 18 months all deportations for Salvadoreans already in the US, when the act goes into effect. During that time the General Accounting Office, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, would investigate conditions in El Salvador.
Senator DeConcini is a supporter of US policy in El Salvador, and has no quarrel with the strict standards limiting refugee status and political asylum to a small minority of Salvadoreans. Neither does he condone the Sanctuary Movement.
``We don't want to set a precedent that we will accept people in trouble from all over,'' says a DeConcini aide, ``but we are directly involved in El Salvador (by supporting the Duarte government), so we bear a special responsibility.''
``We don't want to make these people citizens,'' says a Moakley aide, but the US should provide a temporary safe haven.
Some legislators go farther. Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona says, with the Sanctuary Movement, that Salvadoreans generally are indeed political refugees.
The Sanctuary Movement has its own informal screening process for selecting migrants with good cases as refugees. One indication, according to Jim Corbett, an indicted Sanctuary activist, is what a Salvadorean will choose to do if caught by authorities.
``Any person who would rather stay in an INS prison camp for six to nine months than go back to where he would be free to return (to the US illegally) in two to four weeks, even without resources . . . then that's an indication of their risk at being deported.''
Meanwhile, detention camps like this one are full to capacity with undocumented aliens awaiting or appealing deportation. Some are here for more than a year. Many are disturbed at the conditions here, especially when the summer heat comes. But many, apparently, prefer it to their immediate options, for whatever reasons.