Deporting Disparities

Immigration law divides Central Americans

At a Spring Branch taqueria, the television screen is tuned to a soccer match -- and the mostly male, Latino patrons are closely following the action.

Weak air conditioning, lazily spinning ceiling fans and the tension make it seem much hotter in the room. Brazil finally scores a goal against Denmark, and the small cafe explodes into celebration.

Today, there will be three explosions of cheers for Brazilian goals -- and a pall of near-silence in the second half, for a visitor. An overweight police officer enters to get a to-go order and the crowd suddenly becomes subdued and muted. An edgy Juan drops his Coke.

"Ay, Juan!" one of his friends whispers. "He won't ask you anything, and if he does, just say you're from Mexico." Juan and his friends relax again when the officer leaves. "I am nervous when they are around," Juan says of police. "I always am."

Like most of those in the cafe, Juan and his friends are undocumented immigrants from Latin America. But they are very unlike these other Latin Americans in a most important way. Their Cuban neighbors received permanent U.S. residency status. So did Nicaraguans. Immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala were given temporary residency status.

However, Juan's crowd enjoys none of those protections. As Hondurans, they have no rights under a federal law enacted last year. (The real names of "Juan" and others with no documentation or uncertain residency status have been protected for this story.)

Arrest means immediate deportation for any undocumented Honduran in Houston. Political asylum -- the reasoning used to welcome their Central American neighbors to the United States -- does not apply to these people.

Juan and his compadres are left with a future clouded by the uncertainty of immigration raids.

"There is very little difference between people from Honduras and those from El Salvador," says Gloria Barerra, assistant director of the Central American Resource Center. "Besides the fact that Hondurans are the ones excluded from [the federal law], all Central American refugees experienced the same thing: suffering."

Such disparity in immigration law looms large in Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics of deportations from the Houston area. Last year, natives of Honduras were second only to Mexicans in deportations. In the last four months, 1,700 Hondurans have been deported from this area, the Honduran consulate's office reported.

They are not covered under the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. Under the law, undocumented immigrants from Cuba and Nicaragua were granted status as immediate permanent residents, making it easy to apply for citizenship. Those from El Salvador and Guatemala were again given the "temporary residency status" lost to them under an immigration law of 1996.

"Certain people in Congress felt that the civil war in Honduras wasn't as bad as it was in other Central American countries during the 1980s," explains Teodoro Aguiluz, director of the resource center, which offers legal services to immigrants in Houston. "Those refugees without papers, no matter what [Hondurans] went through during the Honduras war, are subject to immediate deportation. No questions asked."

Those who were instrumental in getting NACARA and immigration changes through Congress do not deny that the civil wars of the 1980s were hard on refugees. But they argue that the wars and suffering are over.

Dan Stein, the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that lobbied hard for more restrictions, said in an earlier news interview, "If it were up to us, they would have been sent back a long time ago. The immigrants needed temporary protection. Now it's safe to go home, so let's get going."

Critics say the disparities in the law have sometimes turned immigrants against each other, and returned them to the terror they thought they had fled.

"Carlos" says it happens often. At 4 a.m., a nightmare shakes him until he wakes. In a pit of sweat, he opens his eyes to find that he is breathing heavily. For a moment, the 29-year-old is unaware where he is.

Slowly, reality becomes familiar to him again, and the familiar dream fades -- the one of the violent shootout in the streets of El Salvador. The clock says that it is only a couple more hours before he has to go to work at the iron factory. The sound of young boys driving a car with booming stereo systems tells Carlos that he is not in El Salvador, but in Southwest Houston's Gulfton area. He gets out of bed and checks on his two daughters.

Upon returning, he finds that his wife, "Conchita," is awake. "AQue paso?" she asks him, wondering what is wrong.

"It was just a nightmare," he tells her. Restless nights like these occur often for their family. As with many of the 15,000 Salvadorians in the Houston area, they fear being forced to return to El Salvador. With only temporary residency status under the 1997 immigration law, Carlos must renew his work permit every year. This, he says, is only "a heartbeat away from getting shipped back to the old country."

"We work hard and we bother no one," he says. "I don't know why they are treating us this way and want us to go back."

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