In an unprecedented pact, the federal government agreed Wednesday to reconsider tens of thousands of cases involving Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals whose requests for political asylum in the United States have been denied.
Ending a five-year legal battle, the government also promised to stay many deportations and agreed that “discrimination . . . based on nationality is improper” in asylum judgments.
Critics have long charged that immigration authorities routinely denied asylum sought by applicants from countries with pro-U.S. governments, such as El Salvador, despite widespread civil strife and political killings that might make those countries unsafe.
The agreement, approved Wednesday in a federal court in San Francisco, settles a class-action lawsuit brought in 1985 by 80 religious and refugee-assistance organizations across the nation, some of whom formed part of the so-called “sanctuary movement,” which offered a haven to Central Americans fleeing their homelands.
It marks the third time in recent months that the Bush Administration has made a major concession on refugee policy. Only last month, the President signed a landmark immigration reform bill that will grant refugee status for 18 months to thousands of Salvadorans, and the government previously revised the rules for obtaining political asylum.
While the government does not acknowledge past bias or other wrongdoing in its handling of asylum cases, it agrees to rehear an estimated 150,000 asylum cases, according to Marc Van Der Hout, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and a representative of the National Lawyers Guild. The number includes cases that have been denied or are pending.
In addition, 350,000 or more Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the country illegally and who never applied for asylum will also be allowed to seek the protected status, Van Der Hout said.
“This settlement is a major victory for all Salvadorans and Guatemalans in this country whose claims for political asylum were being summarily denied for purely foreign policy reasons,” Van Der Hout said as the agreement was announced at a San Francisco news conference.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert F. Peckham issued a preliminary approval of the settlement Wednesday and scheduled a final hearing for Jan. 31.
“We think it is a fair agreement,” U.S. Justice Department spokesman Joe Krovisky said in Washington. He declined to discuss the case further.
Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which handles most asylum petitions, also declined to comment and referred queries to the Justice Department. In court papers, the Reagan and Bush administrations had argued that most Salvadorans and Guatemalans denied asylum came to the United States not to escape persecution but for economic reasons.
The settlement is expected to have a major impact in Southern California, home to one of every four asylum applicants and to the bulk of Central American asylum-seekers whose requests have been denied.
“I think it’s a very broad, wide-ranging settlement,” said Linton Joaquin, an attorney with the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center. “It’s historic.”
The agreement was welcomed enthusiastically by lawyers and advocates who work with refugees. However, many conceded that it is impossible to predict how many people will come forward to apply for refugee status. Further, a new hearing in no way ensures that the applicant will be granted asylum.
Approval rates for asylum applications from most Central American nations traditionally have been low, INS statistics show. Only 2.6% of the Salvadorans who applied for asylum between 1983 and 1990 received it; 1.8% of the Guatemalan applications for the same period were granted.
As part of the agreement, Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals who have been denied asylum since 1980 will be allowed to apply anew; their cases will be judged under new guidelines enacted by the INS on Oct. 1.
Under those new rules--part of a $9-million overhaul of the asylum process unveiled earlier this year--hearings will be conducted by a specially trained corps of asylum officers who are instructed to take into consideration the conditions of the applicant’s home country. Advocates have said the new asylum guidelines may ease the road for foreigners seeking refuge in the United States.
Wednesday’s agreement also sets aside $200,000 to pay for programs to notify those Salvadorans and Guatemalans affected by the settlement.
All Salvadorans and Guatemalans who are in the process of being deported will be notified of the settlement and be allowed to remain in the United States while awaiting a new hearing.
Arthur C. Helton, director of the refugee project of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said it is unusual for the government to agree to reconsider such a large number of cases. He said there seems to be a new willingness at the INS to improve the asylum process.
“This is a departure from the prior siege mentality that had characterized the INS’ litigation position . . . ,” Helton said, adding that he expected other legal challenges to be similarly settled.
Van Der Hout said the government, in agreeing to settle the suit, appeared interested in avoiding a long, costly trial--especially since asylum regulations are changing.
“They (government attorneys) stated they wanted to start afresh,” he said. “They stated they didn’t want to spend the next few years litigating the past 10 years, but wanted to get on to making the new asylum process work (better) in the future.”
To be eligible under Wednesday’s agreement, Salvadoran nationals must have entered the United States on or before Sept. 19 and must register between Jan. 1 and June 30.
For Guatemalans, the deadline for having entered the United States is Oct. 1. Their registration period begins July 1 and lasts for six months.
Salvadorans and Guatemalans with felony criminal records in this country are not eligible.
The case grew out of efforts by numerous churches and religious groups to offer sanctuary and was filed after activists in the sanctuary movement were indicted on conspiracy and alien smuggling charges.
Critics of the INS often have contended that people from countries with communist governments stand a much greater chance of being granted asylum than people from countries with governments supported by Washington.
They cite the low rates of asylum approval for people from Guatemala and El Salvador, where the United States has long supported government efforts to fight leftist guerrilla movements. Natives of Nicaragua, which until recently had a government opposed by U.S. administrations, were granted asylum much more readily.
INS officials have said many asylum applications are bogus efforts by illegal immigrants to obtain a temporary work permit while the application wends its way through the system.
Attorneys who work with Central Americans said Wednesday’s agreement stands to benefit scores of student activists, union organizers and others who have strong asylum cases that were rejected.
Typical of these, attorneys said, is Guatemalan Edwin Colendres Monroy. As a writer for his student newspaper, Colendres, 24, told of human rights abuses allegedly committed by army operatives--until two of his colleagues disappeared. After their bodies were found--they had been tortured--Colendres began to receive death threats. Later his father was beaten by two heavily armed civilians looking for the son.
Colendres sought asylum in an immigration court in Los Angeles, saying that he feared for his life if he was forced to return to Guatemala. The petition was denied because the judge did not consider the threats to be sufficiently serious.
The federal class action suit, brought by church groups and refugee-assistance organizations five years ago, contends that Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals have been discriminated against and were routinely and unfairly denied asylum in the United States. In settling the suit, the U.S. government agrees to reconsider tens of thousands of asylum cases and to stay most deportations. The agreement is expected to have a major impact in Southern California, home to the majority of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum-seekers.