Plan Offers Guatemalans Asylum : Immigration: El ABC program is a one-time opportunity for them to apply with a much-improved chance for success. It is the outgrowth of a class-action suit.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One by one, the men descended from the hillsides of northern San Diego County to voice their concerns: Several feared forced recruitment into village militias in their homeland, some had received threats from the military or guerrillas there, while others spoke of relatives or friends who had "disappeared," never to surface again.

"I'm afraid they'll kill me if I go back," said one man, Miguel Alfonso Martin, echoing a general preoccupation.

He was among about 100 Guatemalan men--almost all Kanjobal-speaking highland Indians, their Mayan heritage unmistakable in their faces--who had hiked or bicycled to a clearing in the chaparral to sign up for the program known as el ABC , a one-time opportunity for some to apply for political asylum with a much-improved chance of success.

The ABC appellation is legal shorthand for a complex national class-action lawsuit, American Baptist Churches vs. Thornburgh, which was formally settled last January in San Francisco.

The settlement followed five years of often-acrimonious litigation pitting more than 80 religious and refugee assistance organizations against the U.S. government, particularly the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The ground-breaking settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham, provided hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans and Salvadorans residing in the United States with a new, reformed opportunity to apply for political asylum--even if they have previously been denied such protection and ordered deported.

The registration period for Guatemalans began on July 1 and is slated to close on Dec. 31. For Salvadorans registration ends Oct. 31.

Applicants under the ABC umbrella are automatically entitled to so-called "work authorization," allowing them to work in the United States while their asylum cases are pending, a process that can drag on for a year or more.

It may be a propitious time. Earlier this year, the immigration service revamped its often-criticized asylum adjudication procedure, creating a new corps of specially trained hearing officers--schooled in human rights matters--and adopting other reforms that immigrant advocates say should render the system more equitable. But there are no guarantees.

Under U.S. refugee law, foreigners residing in the United States may be eligible for asylum if they can demonstrate that they would be subject to persecution--or have a "well-founded fear" of such abuse--based on their national origin, creed or political opinion.

For instance, past asylum seekers have asserted that their lives would be endangered if they returned home because of past confrontations with military or insurgent troops. Others have expressed fears that they may be accused, upon return, of being "subversives," due to past friendships, affiliations or jobs.

In practice, critics have long charged that asylum policy was thoroughly politicized, the result being that refugees from U.S. allies such as Guatemala had a 1 in 10 chance or less of attaining the protected status, while applicants from the one-time socialist-bloc--such as Eastern European countries and formerly-Sandinista Nicaragua--were routinely given asylum and permitted to remain.

That perceived disparity was at the heart of the ABC lawsuit, which grew out of the so-called "sanctuary" movement, composed of church groups and others who have offered refuge to Central Americans fleeing their troubled homelands.

The Bush and Reagan administrations have long contended that the vast majority of Guatemalan exiles, like Mexican expatriates, came north for economic reasons, and are only seeking asylum as a way to secure legal residence. Immigrant advocates disagree vociferously, contending that many do face persecution if they return.

In recent weeks, attorneys and volunteers throughout California have been attempting to alert tens of thousands of Guatemalans--particularly field and day laborers--of the prospective benefits of ABC.

In San Diego and elsewhere, advocates have been conducting charlas-- informal discussions--designed to spread the word to hillside and canyon-hemmed migrant camps, settlements for many Guatemalan Indians, who are generally at the bottom of the immigrant-labor social ladder, performing the lowest-paying jobs.

There is some urgency since the registration period is scheduled to close at year's end. Sign-up has been slow, for several reasons: A general paucity of information about the ABC opportunity; fears of high costs (although registration is free), and the well-conditioned hesitancy, especially among rural Guatemalans, to discuss past politically related difficulties.

"We want to make sure no one squanders the opportunity," said Claudia E. Smith, regional counsel in Oceanside for California Rural Legal Aid, a migrant-assistance organization, which is spearheading the sign-up in San Diego County, relying largely on volunteer private lawyers to pursue the complicated asylum cases.

As of Oct. 4, according to government figures, only about 5,100 Guatemalans nationwide had signed up for ABC. Yet advocates say the eligible ranks likely number tens of thousands, perhaps more than 100,000 Guatemalans.

"Many simply do not have confidence in the system," notes Marilu Camarena, an outreach coordinator for El Rescate, the Los Angeles-based immigrant-assistance organization, which plans to dispatch Kanjobal-speaking workers to inform the city's burgeoning ethnic-Kanjobal Guatemalan population about ABC. (There are also significant concentrations of Guatemalan migrants, especially highland Indians, in the Central Valley, Oregon and Florida.)

While Salvadorans are also eligible for ABC benefits, most have applied via so-called Temporary Protected Status, a provision of the sweeping Immigration Act of 1990. The program provides up to 18 months of so-called "safe haven" for refugees from certain war-ravaged nations but some immigrant rights groups have complained that program's application fees are too high, allegedly enabling the government to make a profit from the program. INS officials deny the charge.

Registration for this program also ends Oct. 31.

Salvadorans enrolled for protected status--and more than 160,000 already are signed up--enlist automatically for ABC benefits. (Guatemalans are not eligible for the safe-haven designation, although activists have been pressing Congress to include them.)

Many Guatemalan immigrants are peasants from hardscrabble mountain zones that were devastated during a brutal Guatemalan military counter-insurgency campaign during the early and mid-1980s that left tens of thousands dead, hundreds of villages destroyed and sent entire communities into exile, according to studies by Americas Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.

Indians fled en masse to neighboring Mexico, and, ultimately, to the United States, particularly California.

Many Guatemalan refugees are illiterate and are generally hesitant to talk to foreigners about anything, much less sensitive matters involving the tortured history of their homeland. Indeed, for many of the prospective ABC beneficiaries, silence has long been a pivotal self-defense mechanism.

"The fact is, these people survived by being invisible, and never saying anything to anybody," said Alberto Saldamando, an attorney with Catholic Charities in San Francisco, who was among those recently providing ABC charlas to Guatemalans in northern San Diego County. "My role is to tell these people what asylum is about: It's not about being poor, it's not about coming north for a better life. It's about persecution."

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