Court strengthens hand of Salvadoreans seeking refuge in US

``Remarkable'' and ``incredible'' are among the adjectives used by jubilant immigrant-rights groups to describe the April 29 ruling by a federal court in Los Angeles that blasted the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for following a policy of discrimination against refugees from El Salvador. The decision by District Court Judge David Kenyon ``demonstrated how the INS has been turned into a weapon of the Reagan administration's foreign policy,'' says Mark Rosenbaum, an lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Mr. Rosenbaum joined lawyers for various immigrant-rights groups in bringing the class-action suit against the Reagan administration on behalf of all Salvadorean refugees. After a nearly two-year trial and testimony by 180 witnesses, the judge sided completely with the refugees.

He ruled that the INS has coerced, cajoled, or tricked Salvadorean refugees in custody into foregoing their right to apply for political asylum and into accepting ``voluntary departure,'' or immediate deportation.

When refugees reject ``voluntary departure'' and are placed in detention centers pending deportation hearings, INS agents engage in a ``pattern and practice of pressuring or intimidating'' them to request voluntary deportation, Kenyon wrote in his 63-page decision.

The INS ``routinely'' transfers detained refugees to ``remote and isolated'' detention centers without notifying their lawyers, Kenyon noted. Salvadoreans held in this way have been deprived of food and kept incommunicado for extended periods of time.

For those who persist in seeking asylum, the INS forces them to provide much more proof than other nationalities that they have a ``well-founded fear of persecution'' if deported, he asserted. The 97-percent rejection rate of Salvadorean asylum requests ``is the direct result of this discrimination,'' the judge said.

Under the Refugee Act of 1980, refugees who can prove a ``well-founded fear of persecution'' are eligible for asylum. ``A substantial number'' of Salvadorean refugees have such a ``well-founded fear,'' opined Kenyon. This ruling compounds an earlier legal setback suffered by the White House in the Supreme Court in March 1987. The court ruled 6 to 3 that asylum applicants need only show that persecution ``is a reasonable possibility,'' not that it is likely.

Kenyon ordered the INS to put an end to the abuses.

The administration had no immediate comment on the decision. Lawyers in the Justice Department's Office of Immigration Litigation are studying the ruling. They have not yet decided whether to appeal, spokesman Tom Stewart says.

During the trial, numerous administration witnesses, including Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, repeated the government's view that most Salvadoreans who illegally enter the United States do so for purely economic reasons.

While noting that the number of political killings has dropped in comparison with the early 1980s, Kenyon agreed with the plaintiffs that many Salvadoreans flee to the US because of persecution primarily by the armed forces. The ruling bolsters the ACLU's and other groups' contention that the administration discriminates against Salvadorean refugees to protect El Salvador's image as a fledgling democracy, Mr. Rosenbaum says.

Aside from greatly enhancing refugees' chances of receiving fair legal treatment, Kenyon's decision could improve the prospects for Senate passage of legislation that halts deportations of all Salvadorean and Nicaraguan refugees for two years. The House of Representatives approved the bill in July 1987.

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