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."

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.

In addition to the fear of what is happening in their native countries, refugee families worry about the impact of moving on their children who were born and raised in Houston.

"My daughters are Americans now," Conchita says. The girls prefer rap music over salsa, and they wear American clothes. "I want to be a teacher and a doctor," says her ten-year-old daughter. "And I want four children."

Juan says his two American-born boys could not adjust because they know little Spanish and "love to play American football" rather than soccer.

Parents who are rounded up by immigration face critical decisions about their children -- whether to keep them when they are deported, give them up for a U.S. adoption or simply refuse to admit to immigration authorities that they even have children.

"We have every kind of problem you can imagine," says Venegas of the Honduran Consulate, "but there is nothing we can do about it."

In a recent case, Venegas refused to sign any deportation papers for a mother being separated from her two children. INS agreed to provide the U.S.-born offspring with "travel documents" so they could return with her.

"Having a child here does not entitle you to a benefit or allow you to stay here," says Barrows. "But we are not out to break up families."

"That's a lie," says Silva. "They want to break up families so we can all go back."

Though many Central Americans, deportable or on temporary status, must remain virtually invisible, Silva's and Aguiluz's organizations are rallying for better treatment of those refugees. They have staged protests and marches, addressed church and civic groups and counseled immigrants about their rights. "Most people don't know what's going on," said Silva. "It's up to us to tell them."

They also are lobbying for a congressional bill that would allow refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti to apply for permanent resident status, although passage seems doubtful in a Republican-controlled Congress.

As long as the immigration disparities exist for Latin Americans, the uncertainties remain over their future. Carlos's family vowed to return if they are ever forced back to El Salvador.

"Our home is here," says Conchita.

E-mail Russell Contreras at russell_contreras@houstonpress.com.

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