It Gets Worse for Salvadorans
White House officials, and the presidential campaign of Vice President George Bush, like to describe the civil war in El Salvador as being on the verge of a successful resolution in favor of the U.S.-backed government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte. But reports from that country are rarely so upbeat. Now even the seriously ill Duarte has come forward with a divergent view.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, Duarte urged the Senate to approve a measure granting special refugee status to an estimated 500,000 Salvadorans living illegally in the United States. Despite billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid that his nation receives, Duarte’s letter says that granting “temporary safe haven” to Salvadoran refugees is “the single most important initiative the United States can now take to help my nation.”
The measure that Duarte’s letter refers to is coauthored by U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.). It would grant Salvadorans in this country a special immigration status known as “extended voluntary departure.” This status requires that U.S. immigration officials temporarily suspend deportations of illegal immigrants from a particular nation because of serious turmoil in their homeland.
The Reagan Administration has consistently opposed the DeConcini-Moakley bill and several other attempts to grant Salvadorans and other Central American refugees this special status. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials insist that most Salvadorans in this country are here because they want to work, not because they fear political persecution. But Duarte’s letter disputes this argument, saying that roughly 10% of El Salvador’s population has fled the country because of the violence and turmoil caused by the civil war. Duarte’s letter even warns that if large numbers of refugees are forcibly returned to El Salvador their discontent could make them sympathetic to the guerrillas fighting to overthrow his government.
This is the second time that Duarte has personally tried to convince U.S. officials to grant Salvadorans special refugee status. He wrote a similar letter to President Reagan early last year, before a new immigration law went into effect. Reagan turned down that request, and it is likely that he will veto the DeConcini-Moakley bill if it is enacted by Congress.
That would be a mistake, for Duarte knows his country better than the White House does. Not only is the Salvadoran civil war still stalemated, but there has been a frightening upsurge in violence in recent months. Battlefield encounters between security forces and guerrillas are more frequent, and the number of casualties has been high. There has also been an increase in the number of assassinations blamed on death squads.
Most analysts say that this upsurge in violence is the inevitable result of the power vacuum that was created when Duarte was diagnosed as having only months to live because of cancer. Both sides in the long civil war are trying to seize the initiative before a new president is elected in 1989. Whatever the cause of this accelerated bloodshed, El Salvador is clearly still a very dangerous place. Duarte’s letter makes a strong case for the Senate to approve the DeConcini-Moakley bill, as the House of Representatives has already done. It should also prompt Reagan to reconsider his stubborn refusal to grant Central American refugees extended-voluntary-departure status.