Salvadoreans: knocking at the door

A man drives north into a winter storm, his car carrying a family of four Salvadoreans on their way to be reunited with their parents. A woman opens her home to two Salvadoreans who have walked much of the way to the United States. A widow prepares baskets of food for nursing mothers who have fled Central American fighting.

The three, church laypeople, are part of the US ''Sanctuary'' movement that provides refuge to Salvadoreans entering the US without permission from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Along with thousands of other citizens, they are risking prosecution under federal laws that prohibit harboring illegal aliens.

Political violence has left more than 40,000 civilian noncombatants dead in El Salvador since 1979; thousands of other men, women, and children have disappeared. In recent years 170 US churches, synagogues, and Quaker meetinghouses have opened their doors to undocumented Salvadoreans who have reached US soil.

On the surface there would appear to be no need for such public disobedience: individuals escaping war-ravaged countries can apply for temporary shelter in the US through legal channels. But in contrast to most other nationalities, Salvadoreans have found these channels blocked: those fleeing the US-supported government in San Salvador are rarely accorded protection, the INS denying in past years more than 97 percent of Salvadorean applications for political asylum. Salvadoreans as a group have been refused discretionary relief that halts deportations of citizens from specified countries until conditions in their land improve - a remedy recently extended to Afghans, Ethiopians, Poles, and others fleeing regimes opposed by the US.

The Sanctuary movement has caused a fault line to spread across America, separating normally law-abiding citizens from their government's application of the law. Many cross that line not simply out of a theoretical dispute with INS's stonewalling of Salvadoreans, but after having come face to face with victims of El Salvador's violence. The voices of refugees have given breath to the cold, documented statistics of massacres and mutilations that have characterized El Salvador's civil war.

The words of such Salvadoreans can, of course, be disbelieved; a listener can still rationalize that these are only economic migrants searching for better jobs. But some North Americans find it harder to do so after looking the witnesses in the eye: one refugee speaks of the murder of his mother and two other women by Salvadorean Army troops; a young woman recalls the politically motivated imprisonment of her schoolteacher husband and their infant children; a boy describes a village massacre that killed a brother and five cousins - one of them a baby six months old. Once having heard their testimony, the question for some listeners becomes not whether to help, but why it took so long to offer.

Many US citizens, although sympathetic to the plight of undocumented Salvadoreans, oppose giving them personal assistance, urging instead they be accommodated through changes in US law. Congressional legislation - the Moakley-DeConcini bill - was introduced in November 1983 to suspend temporarily deportations of Salvadoreans. Though it has failed to emerge from the backroads of congressional committees, supporters believe the measure stands a fair chance of passage during the 1985 legislative session.

But those who contend the only solution lies in clarifying the law tend to avoid one haunting question: What happens to Salvadoreans in the US until the law is changed? Each week an average of 60 men, women, and children are deported to Salvador's unchecked political bloodshed. US human rights groups have documented the death or disappearance of certain deportees and are now making a systematic effort to compare lists of deportees against lists of missing and dead compiled by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador.

Salvadoreans who have reached the US are knocking on the door for help. The sound has been heard before. It is not dissimilar to the knock of the fugitive slave in 1850s America, or the knock of the refugee in 1930s Europe. This time those safe on the inside have but two choices: to turn a deaf ear, or to open the door and listen.

David Douglas lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has, on occasion, housed and transported undocumented Salvadoreans.

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