During the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees arrived in the United States. Like the child refugees fleeing Central America in 2014, they were met with hostility, rejection and deportation. Though entitled to protection under international law, the Central American refugees of the 1980s and the child refugees today do not receive that protection in fact.
In the 1980s, the United States supported a genocidal regime in Guatemala, a brutal right-wing dictatorship in El Salvador, and a repressive regime in Honduras. U.S. military aid to all three countries supported governments that directly carried out or indirectly tolerated and approved of the assassination of union organizers, teachers, political opponents, and human rights advocates. Ferocious internal wars raged in El Salvador (1979-1992) and Guatemala (1960-1996), with U.S. aid supporting repressive militaries in both countries.
During the 1980s, the United States also supported the contras, who tried to overthrow a revolutionary government elected in Nicaragua in 1979, after the end of that country’s civil war.
Before 1980, U.S. immigration law granted refugee status to people fleeing communist countries. In 1980, the law was changed to come closer to international definitions of refugees as people with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” However, the U.S. immigration service still generally refused to accept Central American refugees. As an article published by the Migration Policy Institute summarizes:
“It is estimated that between 1981 and 1990, almost one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled repression at home and made the dangerous journey across Mexico, entering the United States clandestinely. Thousands traveled undetected to major cities such as Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Chicago. However, thousands were also detained at or near the Mexico-U.S. border. …
“Characterizing the Salvadorans and Guatemalans as “economic migrants,” the Reagan administration denied that the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments had violated human rights. As a result, approval rates for Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases were under three percent in 1984. …
“The Justice Department and INS actively discouraged Salvadorans and Guatemalans from applying for political asylum. Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-U.S. border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to “voluntarily return” to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely reported human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants constituted a violation of U.S. obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
In the United States, human rights advocates protested U.S. policies and advocated for refugees. Some churches organized a new “overground railroad” to convey Central American refugees to safety in Canada. A sanctuary movement offered protected space for other refugees. Churches and human rights advocates sued the government, eventually winning settlements that allowed for various forms of temporary protected status and orders to allow Central Americans to apply for asylum/refugee status.
The Central American child refugees arriving in 2014 face U.S. resistance similar to that of the 1980s. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees interviewed more than 400 children, finding that a substantial majority qualify for international protection. According to the UNHCR report, “Across the board, 58% of the children expressed that before leaving their countries of origin they had suffered, been threatened or feared serious harm of a nature that raises international protection concerns.”
Central American children have been arriving in ever-increasing numbers since 2011, fleeing death threats, violence and extreme poverty. The violence permeating Honduras and El Salvador is attributed to gangs, and sometimes to police or soldiers as well.
Deportation can mean a death sentence. A 2004 AP story described a deported 16-year-old Guatemalan who had begged an immigration judge for asylum, saying he would be killed if he was sent home. He was deported on March 10, and was killed 17 days later. His story is not the only one. A teen whose family was forced to return to El Salvador after years in St. Paul tells the story of his father being killed in San Salvador in a July 17 CBS video. A Salvadoran man, married to a Minnesota woman, was denied temporary protected status in 2010, and killed by a gang in his home country after he returned.
U.S. and international law demands that refugees have an opportunity to state their cases. Children, like nine-year-old Berta Mejia Martinez, need lawyers and assistance to tell their stories to immigration judges — but no such assistance is provided. As in the 1980s, political debate focuses on speeding up deportation, rather than on hearing the claims for asylum.