Deporting Disparities

Immigration law divides Central Americans

Uncertain about the changes in immigration laws, many opt to cut all ties with immigration authorities and "go into hiding." Some do not renew their work permits, thinking such a move would allow the U.S. government to locate them for deportation.

Juan said he did not want to risk filing for residency. "I was afraid they wouldn't do it and I would have to go back."

Economic incentives for remaining in the United States are obvious. Juan makes about $275 weekly as a construction worker -- far more than he would make in his native country -- and Carlos says he would have to work a month in El Salvador for a week's worth of wages here. But that is only part of the story. The rest is personified by a past filled with painful scars.

"When I have nightmares about the war," says Carlos, "I can't go back to sleep. It was so dangerous there."

Backed by support from U.S. intelligence during the 1980s, the right-wing military governments in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras went all out to defeat leftist guerrilla groups.

Not only were thousands of lives lost, many were changed. Families were broken up, and those who spoke out against the action of the governments were chased out. El Salvador had, by far, the bloodiest fighting in the 12-year span of the conflict. The average age of soldiers, on both sides, was 15. Nuns were raped and killed and priests were jailed on suspicions of helping rebels, and early-morning raids were conducted on homes of dissidents.

"One day the government came and took away my brother for 'questioning' because he wouldn't fight against the guerrillas," says Conchita. "We never heard from him again."

Juan's Honduras also saw its share of violence. An elite, CIA-backed army unit known as Battalion 3-16 was known to terrorize citizens with torture, physical abuse and rape. Dr. Ramon Custodio Lopez, head of a human rights group in Honduras, claims the battalion was responsible for beating his wife and throwing acid in her face to force him to aid a government investigation. Bodies of kidnapped citizens were found in 26 clandestine cemeteries scattered through the country.

"There was this mountain where we all knew there was a building where they tortured people," says Juan. "I can still hear them cry."

Honduras became a U.S. military base for conducting counterrevolutionary activities with countries along the Honduran border. U.S. intelligence consultants experimented with tactics against Honduran rebels before using those measures in other countries.

As the strife continued, a long and dangerous exodus from Latin America grew, with many refugees migrating in the early 1980s to Houston's Gulfton area.

Juan arrived in Houston with two sisters and worked in a restaurant, on yards, as a janitor and on farms. Conchita got a job at a taqueria while her husband worked in a factory. Though from different countries, the two families settled in the same community, tied together by similar experiences.

The influx of immigrants led to federal "reform" legislation in 1996, followed by last year's law. The laws were accompanied by an aggressive campaign by INS to round up suspected undocumented immigrants. "If we come across them and they are without papers," says Kristi Barrows, a spokesperson for INS, "we place them in immediate removal proceedings."

Enforcement actions have led to a larger number of deportees than has been seen since the U.S. government instituted "Operation Wetback" targeting Mexicans in the 1950s.

Dax F. Venegas, head of the Immigration Department at the General Consulate of Honduras, said 1,700 Hondurans have been deported in the last four months. "That is a tremendous amount of people. It appears that the United States Immigration [authorities] are working harder to deport more people."

Evelyn Silva, chair of the Honduran Committee of Houston, a watchdog group for Honduran Americans, says the new "reforms" are "racist and unfair."

"The reason why Nicaraguans and Cubans were granted residency is because they are white and they have money," she says. "Most of them are also Republicans."

Silva and Juan say that because Hondurans were excluded from NACARA, other Central American groups view them as being inferior.

"Since all the rich people from Nicaragua and Cuba came here," says Silva, "the U.S. government has been treating them real nice ... all because they were on the U.S. side during their wars."

Aguiluz says INS uses the ban on undocumented Hondurans as an excuse to go after "anyone who looks Honduran. What we are seeing now is that a lot of Salvadorians are being harassed and asked to show papers."

This type of "send 'em back" mentality is what frightens many Central American refugees. "Es lo mismo," says Conchita. "It's the same. The war may be over, but people are still getting killed and the government still treats the people bad."

Juan says, "I had a brother who was killed in Honduras for speaking out against the government. The guy who shot him is still in the army. Do you think I want to go back there?"

The New York Times heightened these fears with a series of stories about the return of death squads in both Honduras and El Salvador. Governments there said they are only teams targeting drug dealers, but some refugees said they are instead pursuing political dissidents.

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