Emigres Take Risk, Seek Asylum in Large Numbers

Times Staff Writer

Central Americans seeking to work in the United States are increasingly taking the risky step of filing for political asylum in what experts say is an unintended consequence of the 1986 immigration law.

While asylum applications from Central Americans have risen substantially this year nationwide, the surge is perhaps most dramatic in the Los Angeles area, where more than 16,000 foreigners, mostly Central Americans, filed during the first five months of 1988. Fewer than 1,000 filed during the same period in 1987, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“We’re backed up; we’ve got boxes and boxes of applications that we have to get to,” said Avelino Geaga, supervisory immigration examiner for the Los Angeles district that covers a seven-county region that includes the largest Central American community in the United States.


Faced with the prospect of unemployment, many undocumented Central Americans have opted to remove themselves from the shadows and seek asylum with an eye toward obtaining “work authorization” cards, which allow them to work in the United States while their applications are pending.

The 1986 immigration law revisions require that employers ask their workers for such documentation before hiring them. Full enforcement of the sanctions began Sept. 1, which is when authorities began to notice the surge in applications.

“They need work authorization, and this is the quickest way to get it,” said Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner for the immigration service who condemned the practice as an “abuse”--a position challenged by immigrant advocates.

The applications are double-edged because less than 4% of El Salvadorans and Guatemalans who apply have been granted political asylum, according to immigrant groups that monitor applications. Acceptance rates for applicants from leftist Nicaragua topped 80% last year, critics note, a disparity that they have charged illustrates the “politicization” of the process.

Thus, while applicants from El Salvador and Guatemala may be able to extend their time here for a year or more through the application process and subsequent appeals, many will likely face deportation. Unlike applicants under the recently expired amnesty program, the applications of unsuccessful asylum-seekers do not remain confidential and are used in deportation proceedings.

“Basically, someone applying for asylum is giving the INS all the information they need to deport them,” said Jennifer Horne, a paralegal with El Rescate, the Los Angeles immigrant advocate organization.

Nonetheless, Central Americans have been taking the step, apparently seeing few alternatives at a time when it is becoming more and more difficult for many to find work without some kind of documentation.

“They’re taking a very great risk,” said the Rev. John Fife, a Presbyterian pastor in Tucson who has long been active in the asylum movement for Central Americans. “But when faced with the possibility of their children going hungry, they’ve decided to take this risk.”

U.S. law raises the possibility of asylum for foreigners who can prove they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution based on race, religion, political belief or membership in particular organizations. However, the program has been the focus of intense debate in the past decade, as critics have charged that U.S. officials “tilted” toward citizens of leftist nations such as Poland and were less likely to grant asylum for nationals of U.S. allies such as El Salvador and Guatemala.

The recent increase in applications is most pronounced among El Salvadorans and Guatemalans. An upsurge in applications among Nicaraguans that began in early 1987 is also continuing, the INS said.

Between Oct. 1, 1987, and April 30, 1988, according to the INS, almost 14,000 El Salvadorans nationwide applied for asylum--contrasted to fewer than 3,000 in the previous entire fiscal year.

During the same period, almost 3,000 Guatemalans filed for asylum, more than four times as many as filed during all of fiscal 1987.