Back in 1981 and 82, which were my first two years of volunteering to help the Central American refugees on Long Island, there was no organized effort focused on their needs. There were dozens of individuals giving their time at local churches, like I was, but we really did not understand the lives or needs of the people we were trying to help. We brought in experts to talk to us about the human rights situation in Central America and lawyers to help us understand refugee law, but it was all pretty scattershot.
In the fall of 1982, I started my studies at Hofstra Law School and I decided to try to organize a free asylum clinic for Central Americans. A friend of mine, Ken Lederer, told me that some folks at St. Brigid’s Parish in Westbury were trying to start a legal defense program for the refugees there.
At the time, the church’s pastor was Fr. Fred Schaefer. Fred was one of the first Catholic priests to understand the Church’s duty to serve the refugee community. He had opened the priests’ house in Westbury to homeless refugees. When I went to visit, I found whole families living there with the priests.
I also met a lawyer there who was trying to start an organization called the Central American Refugee Center, or CARECEN. A small group of people, including Yanira Chacon Lopez, who still works with the immigrant community in Westbury, were educating themselves about the law and beginning to accept clients.
Before I learned anything else there, I learned that people from El Salvador and Guatemala were almost never granted asylum.
Our clients were almost all refugees from the killing fields of El Salvador and Guatemala, places where whole families were wiped out when a father joined a union, or a mother participated in a Catholic organization.
When they fled to the United States, instead of being met by a refugee aid worker, Salvadorans and Guatemalans were arrested by unsympathetic men with guns, imprisoned with felons, and mocked by their jailers if they tried to assert their rights.
There were already a half-dozen organizations on Long Island focused on the human rights crisis in Central America, but CARECEN was unique. It was the only group providing direct legal services to Central American refugees, advocating for changes in the immigration laws, and using the stories of the refugee experience to influence the thinking of Long Islanders. CARECEN also helped devise legal strategies that challenged the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s wholesale denial of political asylum to refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.
From the start, we were to have a professional staff of lawyers, four of whom later went on to positions as law school professors.