Salvador refugees: shipped from US back into civil war at 'home'

Salvadoran refugees deported from Mexico are in some ways much better off than those deported from the United States.

Mexico dumps them across the Guatemalan border. The US, on the other hand, flies them directly into El Salvador and gives the flight passenger lists to the government.

Refugees worry that they will be killed after stepping off the planes. In fact, bodies are often found along the road from the airport to the capital, San Salvador, although it is difficult to ascertain whether they are the deported refugees.

The Reagan administration does not view these Salvadorans as political refugees. It calls them ''economic migrants,'' fleeing not persecution but high unemployment and food shortages brought on by years of civil unrest.

US asylum is granted only to those who have ''a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.'' The rest are deported.

The US sent about 20,000 of these Salvadoran ''migrants'' home over the last two years.

No one knows how many Salvadorans are in the US illegally. But more than 6, 000 Salvadoran hopefuls filed asylum applications with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1981. The INS acted on 156 of them, approving only two.

Those with pending applications wait, anxiously and uncertainly, usually living on a shoestring with fellow refugees in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, and other big cities. Several hundred are in crowded federal detention centers in El Paso and Ft. Isabela, Tex.; El Centro, Calif.; Brooklyn; and Miami. Some are in prison.

It can take up to two years for an asylum application to be processed, heard, and appealed. Lawyers and volunteers working with Salvadorans here say the INS often tries to discourage the refugees from filing asylum papers. It urges them to return home voluntarily. Most refugees don't know their rights under immigration law, and the INS doesn't go out of its way to tell them, they say.

Some human-rights organizations -- even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) -- say US policy toward the Salvadorans is unreasonable. Some assert that its denial of widespread repression in the small Central American country stems from US support for El Salvador's military-civilian junta. Asylum for refugees fleeing that government would put the US in the embarrassing position of contradicting itself.

Last spring the UNHCR privately protested the US policy to the Reagan administration and advised it that the policy might be in violation of international law.

UNHCR spokesman Gary Perkins told the Monitor: ''The office of the commissioner has made a prima facie decision that these people are refugees coming from a refugee-like situation'' under the terms of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a multilateral treaty signed by the US.

The UNHCR urged the administration to grant temporary refugee status to the Salvadorans until violence in their country subsides.

Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte has also suggested this. Last year, while visiting the US, he told Roman Catholic Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, D.C.: ''It would be better if they (the refugees) were allowed to remain in the US until the turmoil is settled.''

There is a precedent for temporary asylum. In the past the US has granted ''extended voluntary departure'' to Nicaraguan, Lebanese, and Ugandan refugees. They were allowed to stay in the US until it was safe for them to go home.

US Rep. Ted Weiss (D) of New York has submitted a bill proposing this temporary status for the Salvadorans. Some US senators are discussing a similar resolution. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona is petitioning Attorney General William French Smith to grant the privilege administratively.

But at this point it appears the Salvadoran refugees will continue to live in limbo in the US, with only a few able to document that they suffered genuine political repression.

''It's great when people can come here (to an INS office) and say, 'Here are the articles I've published against my government,' or 'I'm Jewish and here's evidence that my country persecutes Jews,' '' says William Johnston, INS chief in Tucson. ''But unfortunately the majority of cases coming out of El Salvador aren't so clear-cut.

''It's not enough to just say 'I'll be persecuted because I'm Catholic.' They have to show they were baptized in the church, married in the church, consistently attend church, and that the government persecutes those who do that. The fact that there are indiscriminate killings with no one claiming responsibility doesn't meet the criteria for refugees.

''Sure, El Salvador is a crummy place to live,'' he adds. ''But so is the Bronx.''

Refugees who leave voluntarily don't go through the lengthy legalities of the deportation process. They simply sign a voluntary departure form and can be put on the next flight to San Salvador. The whole process from arrest to departure can take a day and a half.

''It's almost a universal truth, as confirmed by the refugees, that voluntary departure forms are not fully explained,'' says the Rev. Larry Jackson, a Presbyterian minister active in refugee work in southern Texas. He said one girl was told by an INS official that she was signing a laundry ticket. Another, he said, was told that she was obligated to sign if she didn't have a lawyer.

''The impression the refugees are left with is that they will be deported eventually, that their stay here won't be pleasant, and that there are no alternatives,'' he says.

A joint delegation of the National Lawyers Guild and the National Council of Churches that made a 12-day tour of federal detention camps along the US-Mexican border last month says the INS bends -- and in some cases breaks - the rules all along the line.

''There is an overall pattern that seeks to push out Salvadoran refugees by any means available,'' says Betty Nute, a delegate from the National Council of Churches and the American Friends Service Committee.

She says the INS discourages Salvadorans from filing for political asylum and sometimes forgets about -- or refrains from -- outlining the legal options open to them. The refugees have difficulty even gaining access to telephones. A lawyer who works with Salvadorans told the guild-church delegation that officials often have a noncooperative attitude and, in some cases, actively interfere in the attorney-client relationship.

These allegations are echoed in a US Commission on Civil Rights report on immigration issues. The commission's report also says excessively high bail is set for the Salvadorans at times; bail can run from $2,500 to $10,000. And it says refugees are not always told of their right to remain silent.

Mrs. Nute suggests that even in the final phase of immigration proceedings, officials have been less than forthright with the refugees now and then. ''I read the transcript of an entire deportation hearing at Los Frenos (Tex.), where a Salvadoran woman kept saying 'I dont want to go home. I'm terriby afraid. They killed my family.' The judge never said one word about filing for asylum,'' Mrs. Nute said.

To lessen the load, INS had made two proposals discourage more Salvadorans from heading to the US: larger detention centers, and stiffer asylum laws, such as the ''draft asylum bill'' proposed by David Crosland, INS general counsel, which would bar applications for asylum by those who have entered the country illegally.

But these solutions don't address the real problem, say refugee support groups. Killing, torture, starvation, destruction, and terror won't disappear just because fewer Salvadorans head for the US.

Congressional interest in the Salvador civil war is budding, and so is concern among civic and human-rights groups.

Over the past nine months, refugee support networks have cropped up around the US - and in Mexico. The majority of these groups are at least partially church-supported. Among groups that have called for a change in US immigration policy toward Salvadorans are the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the Synagogue Council of America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.

Grass-roots help by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists , Quakers, and others has raised bail money, paid for legal representation, and provided for some food, clothing, and shelter.

Most groups, secular and religious, work within the boundaries of the law. But because undocumented Salvadorans are designated as ''illegals,'' some refugee work runs in the gray area.

''The most immediate problem is to keep people from being murdered,'' says an Arizonan Quaker quietly involved in setting up an underground railroad. ''It becomes a right of conscience, possibly even an obligation, . . . to directly defy the government on this issue, and by getting the refugees settled, to protect them.''

Some countries that have signed the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees indicate they may accept Salvadorans who can make it to their shores.

The Canadian Minister of Immigration, for example, said in a parlimentary debate last fall that Canada was willing to receive asylum applications from Salvadorans risking deportation in the US.

But arrangements for getting Salvadorans to Canada or other countries are being kept under wraps by the US groups involved.

''It's obvious that this is an extremely delicate situation,'' says a woman working on arrangements with a European country. ''It's an embarrassment to the US State Department that other countries would step forward and say, 'Yes, we'll help these people,' when we won't. Too much publicity and the whole thing could just be shut down before it ever takes off.''

The State Department, upon whose advisories the INS relies to help determine whether asylum will be granted, says it does ''not take lightly'' allegations that refugees deported to El Salvador might be hunted down and attacked. It says that it has tried to substantiate reports of refugees being killed, but has not been able to do so, even with the help of the US Embassy in San Salvador.

''We are always ready to consider concrete evidence,'' a spokesman says. Another adds, however that State has ''no reason to believe that the Salvadorans who are sent back are in any jeopardy greater than that faced by the average Salvadoran.''

Refugee support groups say they recently received confirmation of the death of Santana Chirino Amaya, age 24, from the young man's parents. Amaya was deported from the US in December 1980, returned to the US, and was deported again in July 1981.

One month after his second deportation, his body was found in a shallow grave , along with the body of a 14-year-old boy. Both had been mutilated. Their thumbs and feet were also tied with electrical wire. The young man's family sent a newspaper clipping about the killing to the Washington refugee center, CARACEN , saying they have no explanation for their son's murder.

The Manzo Area Council in Tucson and El Rescate (''The Rescue'') in Los Angeles, two groups providing legal help to the refugees, say they have talked to Salvadorans who were forced to sign the voluntary departure forms, who have been beaten until they signed, and who have been told that if they didn't sign their families would be deported while they stayed here and they would never see each other again.

INS spokesman Duke Austin said the INS doesn't ''permit or condone'' beatings , harassment, or circumvention of proper legal procedures. He said he has heard of cases where detainees have been returned to their home countries without knowing all their options -- but adds the INS is not required to tell detainees about every course open to them.

INS district directors have final authority in ruling on asylum applications. Applications are sent to the US State Department for an ''advisory oppinion'' before decisions are rendered, however. None of the INS officials interviewed by the Lawyers Guild-Council of Churches in its 12-day investigation said they had ever seen a positive advisory come back on a Salvadoran application. A separate check with the State Department revealed that the department has made at least some positive responses, however.

INS spokesmen note that INS is overworked. Officials strain to give the cases the attention they deserve. And once a refugee has been found ineligible for political asylum, the INS says it really has no other choice but to send him or her back to El Salvador.

One thing federal detainees ususaally are not told, according to refugee support groups, is that they have the right to retract their voluntary departure at any point until they leave the country. Almost every support group has at least one ''kidnapping'' story, in which a Salvadoran has retracted voluntary departure, but has been spirited away by the INS and deported before the group could offer help.

Arizona INS officials deny this happens, but ministers and attorneys say Salvadorans literally have been led out of the back door of a jail and taken away while members of a support group are stalled at the front desk.

The pressure to leave voluntarily is compounded by overcrowded, unsanitary conditions inside the camps.

At a recent ecumenical conference on Salvadoran refugees held at the El Centro detention center, Freddy, a wiry, soft-spoken youth, described the two months he spent in detention before being bailed out by the Tucson Ecumenical Council. His said the food was bad and that quarters were filthy. He said psychological torture and beatings were inflicted on some refugees. There were no medical facilities and prolonged exposure to 115-degree desert heat took its toll on many of the Salvadorans.

Fred Tarazon, an aide to Arizona Sen. DeConcini, heard the boy's report and went to check out El Central's facility for himself.

''Oh, my God, I can't believe it,'' he said weakly on his return from the camp. He said camp authorities at first tried to keep him out of the facility, but a call to Washington had unlocked the gates.

''I saw a man with a broken leg'' who had received no treatment. ''I saw men who had been wearing the same clothes for a year and a half. A man told me about being beaten with a lead pipe.

''I saw the psychological torture - in fact I was even yelled at by a guard until I told him who I was.

''The lice problem is incredible,'' Mr. Tarazon continued. ''There's no recreation. . . . And the food . . . is horrible. . . . I wasn't ready for what they served. I don't even know what it was. It tasted like dog food. There are men who claim the food is making them sick.''

''They've got Salvadorans locked up with hardened criminals and mental patients from Cuba. At least 10 buses a day come in full and leave full. A man told me his two brothers had signed the voluntary departure forms and were sent back and killed. He says they (the INS) want him to sign but he said 'no.' He told them he wants help from Manzo, but the guards tell him no one is going to help him. What Freddy said is true.

''The INS blames many of these problems on budget cutbacks, insufficient staff, outdated and small detention factilities, and a backload of work that has completely clogged the system.

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