Generations of immigrants have sought shelter in the weathered Victorians and densely clustered two-family houses that dot this ''ethnic'' city just north of Boston. Irish and Italian accents mix with the hard-edged Boston dialect in a city that has long looked to Europe as the birthplace of its people.
But today in some of these houses there is the soft musical lilt of a distinctly non-Western language. In some kitchens in East Somerville, scents that suggest the curry, heavy garlic, and simmering lamb of India hint that a new kind of influx is slowly occurring.
The inside of one of these houses is large and sparsely furnished. But it is crowded with family relations and visitors. These are dark-skinned Tamils from the tropical island nation of Sri Lanka, just Southeast of India. They are among the latest to throw American immigration authorities a familiar challenge: How to offer shelter to those who flee severe persecution overseas, without opening the back door to thousands who seek entrance to the United States primarily for greater economic opportunity.
Upstairs slim, youthful-looking Kailasanathan Shanmdarajan tells his story. He says he obtained a visa to enter Mexico, then crossed the Mexican border to enter the US, without a visa, in October 1982. He has a work permit that allows him to work as a polisher at the Freeport Marble Factory in Boston. Mr. Shanmdarajan is just one of a number of recent arrivals whose bids for political asylum slowly wind their way through US courts and administrative agencies.
With him is a husky looking former merchant seaman, S. Nadanasabesan. He works in Somerville as a private security guard, while studying electrical engineering at Boston's Northeastern University. He gained entry into the US after being rescued when a merchant freighter he worked on collided with another vessel off Cape Cod in 1979.
Another friend, Rasiah Selvanayagam, says he also came across the Mexican border with no US visa. But in his case a work permit was denied, apparently, he says, on the grounds that he had other means of support. Now, he explains, there's little to do except hang around a friend's house.
These young men, like most of the estimated 1,000 Sri Lankans living in the Boston area, are Hindu Tamils. The Tamils make up less than 20 percent of Sri Lanka's population, the remainder being largely Buddhist Sinhalese. Each year a few more Sri Lankan Tamils arrive to gain shelter and assistance from family and friends who precede them.
The three maintain that their reason for seeking asylum is political. They say return to Sri Lanka would expose them to persecution and possibly violence by majority Buddhist Sinhalese - however, they left their country and applied for asylum before frictions with the majority Buddhist Singhalese majority led to killings of at least 400 Tamils in July.
In accordance with standard practice, all have been allowed to remain here pending a final decision on their applications for asylum. Decisions by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service are sometimes long delayed, and applicants can appeal them.
Since the riots, politically active Tamils already in this country have asked the US government to pressure the Sri Lanka government to cease what they see as government encouragement for anti-Tamil actions. They have urged that in view of the recent riots, the US should look sympathetically upon any Tamil who reaches the US and applies for asylum.
The number of asylum bids from the Soviet bloc, Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba, and Nicaragua vastly overshadow the number of Tamil applications. As of August, only 29 Sri Lankans (almost all of them Tamil) had asylum petitions submitted and awaiting decision, out of a grand total of 170,000 foreign nationals presently awaiting decision on political asylum applications filed after reaching the United States.
The case of Sri Lanka illustrates one of those gray areas in US immigration policy - cases in which asylum seekers face a general condition of economic and political discrimination and possible but not certain violence, yet do not face direct or continuous threats to their lives and security.
Are these circumstances sufficient to make the Tamils eligible for political asylum, if they are fortunate enough to be able to apply after reaching the US?
US regulations create what one State Department official calls a ''Catch-22'' situation. In order to plead for asylum, you have to get to the US. But at the same time, the American consulate in Sri Lanka is required to to carefully process Sri Lankan applicants for tourist or student visas to screen out those who are likely to stay longer.
Given the growth in Tamil discontent, it can almost be assumed that once in the US, a Tamil will try to change his temporary visa or prolong his stay by applying for asylum.
Even before the recent riots (which some Tamils compare with the anti-Jewish ''pogroms'' in Czarist Russia), many Tamils left at least partly because they felt their future had been undermined by the Sri Lankan government's policy of making Sinhalese the official language. That gives economic, educational, and political advantages to the majority (and sometimes in the past economically backward) Singhalese.
Here in Somerville, the new arrivals continue to come. At first they stay with friends and relatives while waiting for the work permits that will allow them to land regular jobs. Meanwhile they cook, chat with friends, and search for occasional part-time jobs.
Many settle in houses near East Somerville's Perkins Street, where earlier arrivals have bought or rented houses. In this neighborhood is the residence of Sri Thillaiampalam, an employee of a Boston air-freight company who is also secretary general of a locally based Tamil political group known as Elam. He says that, for the most part, Somerville's Tamil community faces little discrimination here.
Do the Tamil children have problems in Somerville schools?
''No,'' he nods. ''Tamil children work very hard, and do very well. Oh sometimes, they get a little trouble from other students. But that is the way it is. Teen-agers always act like teen-agers,'' he shrugs.