When the dusty square in the desert called the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service El Centro Service Processing Center was built 12 years ago, it was designed to hold Mexican illegal aliens for a week or two while their deportation was arranged.
But today, many of the eyes that peer out from behind the 12-foot-high fences topped with barbed wire belong to Central Americans who have left their countries amid civil war. Unlike their Mexican counterparts who can simply give up, accept deportation, and try to recross the border again the next day, these men have neither the money nor the will to go home.
Hence, they wait here, sometimes for months or about a year, for their immigration status to be resolved. Without bond money. Often without visitors. Usually with only the faintest hope that one of the over-burdened immigration lawyers who help them virtually for free will secure political asylum for them.
"I've been here for five months!" cried one lean Salvadoran from behind the fence when a rare group of visitors toured the camp last week. "Can you help me?"
The group was a small fact-finding mission of Los Angeles-area congressmen and a dozen immigrants' advocates who included church-based activists and immigration attorneys. They were particularly interested in the Salvadorans who are now by far the largest single group in custody.
The delegation included Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Studio City), Rep. Esteban Torres, (D-La Puente) and Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, (D-Monterey Park). Rep. Al McCandless (R-Palm Desert) joined the tour at the invitation of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Their tour through the center for alien men served to spotlight the controversies and dilemmas associated with housing the influx of Salvadoran illegal aliens into California.
Lawyers and other advocates for the illegals have long complained about camp conditions.
"The conditions at El Centro are abhorrent," charged Cynthia Anderson, a representative of the church-based Southern California Interfaith Task Force on Central America, in an interview. "Salvadorans are treated as refugees in other countries, and here they are housed like criminals without the basic tools they need to even help out on their own legal cases."
But the immigration service says El Centro is the best of its seven detention facilities, and points to numerous improvements at the camp in recent years.
"This is our best operation," Harold Ezell, regional INS commissioner, told the tour group. "We follow the same standards (as those) maintained by the American Correctional Assn. We are proud of our operation here."
Pledging to press for specific improvements in the detention center, the three Democratic congressmen who toured the center also urged support for a new bill that would grant all Salvadorans now in the United States temporary legal status until war danger in El Salvador subsides.
"I've never seen overcrowding like this," Berman said. "But the real problem is that there's a brutal civil war there (in El Salvador) and there are thousands of people in this facility and thousands of others in the United States who are scared to return. The United States . . . has a duty to respond to that fear and grant them (temporary refuge)."
'Not a Country Club'
"This is not a hotel," McCandless countered. "This is not a country club. I think the INS officials are doing an excellent job of carrying out U.S. immigration law here and we should congratulate them."
Since violence spread through Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the population of the El Centro camp has doubled and redoubled. In 1981, according to INS figures, 3,900 men came through the camp. In 1984, the number rose to 9,800. (Female aliens are held in separate facilities elsewhere.)
The camp now operates a fleet of 21 diesel buses that rumble in nightly from as far away as Yakima, Wash., and Boise, Ida., disgorging loads of immigrant men who may stay perhaps a year.
On any given day, the camp may well be operating at what INS calls "emergency capacity." In congressional testimony last year, INS officials said the capacity of the camp was 344. Last Wednesday, there were 492 in the facility.
The detainees are housed in what the INS describes as "campus-style" dormitories, 140 to a room, in quadruple rows of bunk beds. A television set equipped with Spanish-language channels is at one end.
The detainees are allowed visits only from blood relatives, and only on weekends. But because the camp is so far from most cities--and because many of their relatives are themselves illegal aliens--few of the men receive visitors.
INS officials said in interviews they believe that the facilities are adequate, if not ideal, given limited budgets.
"We are not administering cruel and unusual punishment here," said Clifton J. Rogers, assistant regional INS commissioner for detention and deportation.
"We have organized recreation. We have a canteen outside and a shaded area for people to play their checkers and their board games. We now have a full-time recreation director. We just got a 16-unit weight-lifting machine. We show the latest movies every other weekend."
In fact, dramatic improvements have been made in the camp over the past few years.
Difficult to Use
But tight INS budgets and tighter regimentation at the camp have made it difficult for the aliens to take advantage of some of them.
- Newspapers are now distributed in the yard during the day. But, apart from the Bible, reading material is rarely allowed in the dormitories for fear that it will be used to clog the plumbing. Also, attorneys say, immigration literature is frequently confiscated. Paper and pencils are available only at night.
- New telephones have been added. To guard against fraud, aliens can receive no incoming calls and cannot call--even collect--to their homelands. Moreover, the phones are in such noisy areas that detainees complain that they cannot hear when they are speaking.
- Locking boxes were purchased a year ago so that aliens can keep small, personal belongings without fear of them being stolen. But the boxes remain in storage because, officials say, they have no money to hire anyone to install them.
Medical Staff of 3
- A medical staff of three is on duty. But there are no routine checkups upon admission and the aliens complain that they sometimes find themselves sharing quarters with those suffering from venereal disease and tuberculosis.
- The barracks are air conditioned, but aliens are kept outside from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"Having air conditioning in the barracks at night is fine, but what good does it do to have air-conditioned barracks at night when it's 120 degrees when you're out in the sun at noon?" asked Graciela Zavala, directing attorney for the Imperial Valley Immigration Project, which represents numerous clients in the camp.
Camp director Douglas Hunter said that for security reasons he cannot permit the aliens to remain inside in overcrowded barracks during the day, and does not have sufficient budget to build a long-promised air-conditioned recreation room for day use.
Depends on Reports
Hunter pointed out that the medical staff, while limited, has been increased to three. A public health doctor on duty during the tour said he knows of no cases of active tuberculosis in the camp. Because no examinations are conducted upon entrance into the camp, he added, he must depend on aliens to report their own illnesses.
Gilbert Carrasco, directing attorney of the Center for Immigrants' Rights, also charged the immigration service with failing to live up to standards set for such institutions by the American Correctional Assn.
Among the correctional standards violated by the camp, Carrasco asserted, are insufficient space per detainee (only 36 square feet of dormitory space per person compared to the standard 50 square feet), and one toilet per 15 men (half the standard).
Carrasco is among several attorneys suing the INS to obtain better legal representation and access to a law library for the aliens, similar to the libraries available in U.S. prisons.
Funds a Basic Issue
"We have no desire to withhold material from these people," said William Odencrantz, regional INS counsel, in an interview. "But one of the basic issues, frankly, is that of funds. We've had an expansion of budget, but not to the extent we'd like to (have)."
The three Democratic congressmen promised to press for specific immediate improvements in the camp. But the long-term answer, they said in an impromptu press conference, is to legalize the status of the more than 500,000 Salvadorans now believed to be living in the United States.
Extended voluntary departure is an immigration status given to refugees to the United States fleeing political violence in their homelands. It allows the refugees to remain in the United States for a specific period of time until conditions at home make it safe for them to return.
A bill that would have granted such status to Salvadorans withered in Congress last year after it became entangled in a larger battle over immigration reform.
However, a new bill was introduced Jan. 30 by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). The bill would stop the deportation of Salvadorans now living in the United States for two years, at which time Congress would hold a hearing to consider extending the period of refuge.
The measure is opposed by the Reagan Administration, which has classified most of the Salvadoran aliens as economic refugees seeking better living conditions in the United States, not fleeing violence. Less than 3% of political asylum applicants from El Salvador have been granted such status over the past few years.
The bill also has raised fears that, if passed, it might prompt an exodus of Salvadorans to the United States. To blunt such criticism, the new bill would grant such refugee status only to those Salvadorans already in the country as of the date it becomes law. The bill's supporters believe it has a good chance of passing the House this year. But it faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.
"That's just what we need," said INS Commissioner Ezell, shaking his head as he listened to the Democratic congressmen call for extended voluntary departure status for Salvadorans. "Every Mexican coming across the border would try to pretend he's a Salvadoran. It would be a nightmare."
Today, INS agents say, the problem is the reverse. Salvadorans coming across the border memorize the Mexican national anthem and learn Mexican slang to try to convince immigration agents not to send them back to El Salvador.