I don’t know if it would be right to say that 30 years ago, I started my legal career at the Central American Refugee Center as a young idealist. I knew that the Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing persecution were entitled to asylum under the law, but after two years working as a volunteer ESL teacher, I knew that was not how the law was administered. I knew about the cynical betrayal of international law by Ronald Reagan before I got my first paycheck.
I represented refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua during the 1980s. The asylum approval rate for Salvadorans was about 2%, and for Guatemalans it was about 1%. The approval rate for Nicaraguans at times rose as high as 77%. All three had governments that engaged in human rights abuses, with Guatemala clearly being the worst. So why the big difference in approvals?
Nicaragua was ruled by the Sandinistas at the time, a leftist movement that had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship. Granting refuge to persons from Nicaragua, whatever its other merits, was part of a Reagan Administration effort to convince the world that the repressive nature of the Sandinistas was driving people out of the country. Ed Meese, the Attorney General and head of immigration during the Reagan years, referred to the Nicaraguans leaving their country as “foot-people”, evoking images of the Vietnamese and Cuban “boat-people,” people who risked everything to try to escape tyranny.
Unfortunately for the image Meese was trying to generate, there were even more people fleeing El Salvador and Guatemala. The refugee flows from these countries were many times that of Nicaragua. And tiny El Salvador was the fourth largest recipient of United States aid in the world during the 1980s, and Guatemala was so important to the Administration that the President’s men developed an illegal channel to funnel support to the military regime.
Finding that refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador faced persecution in their homelands would be tantamount to finding that the United States supported outlaw regimes that violated human rights.
Next week I’ll tell you how we fought back against the abuse of our refugee laws by the government.