Behind the Washington Riots

LAST week's rampage in Washington, DC's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood has been a long time in coming. Finally, local officials and police have been forced to pay attention. So must we who live and work in the neighborhood and the larger metropolitan area. Moreover, the White House, Capitol Hill, and other communities should consider themselves on notice: What happened on our streets could occur in other cities where thousands of Central Americans live. How did we get to the point where our police were attacked and our property destroyed?

Business owners and residents alike had complained about public drinking and loitering. It isn't tolerated in upscale neighborhoods of the city, and it shouldn't be tolerated in mixed areas. It is bad for business. Few customers return after being panhandled and harassed. It made the simple act of walking home - one of the joys of urban living - a tense experience, especially for women, who are constantly taunted.

So the police attempted to be more responsive. But tough-talking, non-Spanish-speaking rookies arrived for a job requiring culturally sensitive, experienced officers. Typically, young Hispanic males, like young African-American males in the city, are viewed with suspicion by police. They are treated with little respect and, in turn, disrespect the police. Every encounter, however innocent, is a potential conflict.

No one foresaw that more police could spark a riot. Nor was the suffering of the Hispanic community seen. Many are without work, in an unfamiliar culture, without family to help. Others have nowhere to go when they are not working. There are no recreation centers. Many share apartments with a six or more roommates. On nice days they sit outside. Drinking starts early.

Who are our rock-throwers? They are predominantly young men from El Salvador. Most have come to this country since 1980, the year political killings in their country reached a peak. Neighbors and relatives disappeared. Communities dispersed. Local economies crumbled. Hundreds of thousands, many barely adolescents, left in order to survive.

Most were illiterate and unskilled, without parents to raise them. They had little encouragement or time to go to school. They supported themselves on minimum wages and managed to send money home. Most did not have proper papers, so work was not steady and exploitation by employers, landlords, and others has been a fact of life. Youngsters grew up fast and troubled. Now some of them are throwing rocks, and the rest of us are angry. The violence, however, is a direct consequence of a very cynical policy of our government in the 1980s. Salvadorans were not considered refugees or worthy of special immigration consideration. The terrorism of right-wing death squads and rogue guerrilla bands was somehow less terrible than the brands of persecution practiced in Cuba or Poland.

IMMIGRATION authorities worked to stop their entry or send them back. Both efforts produced meager results. That suited our foreign policy position well. Our State Department was fixed on keeping the El Salvadoran government in place. Accepting groups of its nationals as refugees would have undercut the human rights improvements the administration certified so Congress would keep the aid flowing. Returning large numbers would have cut off migrant money sent home from US earnings. El Salvador's economy c ould collapse without it.

In 1986, Congress allowed amnesty for illegal immigrants. But its 1982 cutoff date eliminated the majority of Central Americans because the migration was new. Only after years of litigation and intense lobbying by immigrant advocates did Congress and the administration finally agree, late last year, to grant safe haven to Salvadorans and reconsider their refugee claims. Nonetheless, the process will be protracted and the results uncertain.

The Salvadoran immigrant community has been used, with no regard for the human cost. It's time to ante up. These people need help - job training, literacy, English language, recreation, housing. And they need the rest of us to plead their case. Washington's Hispanic community does not yet have the political clout required to protect itself fully. Furthermore, we have an obligation to the greater Central American community. Many are cleaning our houses, busing our tables, changing tourists' sheets. As ou r newly elected mayor and city officials tackle the problems of the city's disadvantaged, they must acknowledge this community and provide for it. Other municipalities must do the same. Congress should help pick up the tab.

Immigration is one of the ongoing success stories of American history. Fortunately, the anger and alienation demonstrated this week are atypical, even in the larger Salvadoran community. But they will recur if we don't attack the reasons our neighbors have attacked us.

Jean Lujan is owner-manager of Heller's Bakery and Avignone Freres in Washington's Mt. Pleasant section. Doris Meissner is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both were senior officials of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service during the 1980s.

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