1980 was a landmark year for refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. It turned out to be the beginning of what might be called the modern era of American refugee policy. The year began with legislation that greatly expanded the number of refugees that could be admitted. But it also was the start of a continuing trend of slamming the door on certain ethnicities, particularly Central Americans.
The Refugee Act of 1980, signed by Jimmy Carter, was a legislative response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia who came to the U.S. in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It raised the annual ceiling on refugee admissions to 50,000 from the previous 17,400. It also established regular procedures for the adjustment of that ceiling in the event of an emergency. With these changes, the U.S. would for the next several decades (until the Trump Administration) be the world leader in accepting refugees.
The legislation refined the definition of who is a refugee, bringing the U.S. in line with the UN Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees. A refugee was defined “as any person who is outside his or her country of residence or nationality, or without nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
At the same time unrest, violence and civil war were rampant in many Central American countries. The year before in Nicaragua, the socialist Sandinista government had been ousted by brutal right-wing autocrat Anastasio Somoza. A year later Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down at the altar by assassins believed to be associated with the El Salvador government. Romero had ordered Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing civilians. The assassination inflamed the civil war in that country.
The Migration Policy Institute stated “In El Salvador, the military and death squads were responsible for thousands of disappearances and murders of union leaders, community leaders, and suspected guerilla sympathizers, including priests and nuns. In Guatemala, the army’s counter-insurgency campaign focused on indigenous communities, resulting in thousands of disappearances, murders, and forced displacements.” And this says nothing of the violent criminal organizations in those countries specializing in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and people.
Ronald Reagan was president at that time. And as president, he was a Cold Warrior. Foreign policy was largely defined as the good guys vs. the bad guys. The anti-Communists vs. the Communists. Thus the right wing dictatorships of El Salvadore and Guatemala, both of which were fighting leftist insurgencies, came up as good guys in the Reagan White House. So too, Somoza, who had overrun the socialist Sandinistas.
Thus, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, very few of the nearly one million Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers were approved. Using 1984 as an example, only 3 percent of the cases from those two countries were granted asylum. By contrast, in the same year, 60 percent of Iranian refugees and 40 percent of those from Afghanistan were approved. They, of course, were fleeing from countries whose governments were not on friendly terms with the U.S. (Afghanistan was controlled at the time by the USSR.) Refusing to acknowledge the true nature of the governments we were supporting in Central America, the refugees from those countries were tagged “economic refugees” and denied admittance. (If you read last week’s post about the Haitian boat people, that may sound familiar.)
The Migration Policy Institute claims that: “The Justice Department and INS actively discouraged Salvadorans and Guatemalans from applying for political asylum. Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-U.S. border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to ‘voluntarily return’ to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely reported human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants constituted a violation of U.S. obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
There were a number of legal challenges to the government’s actions against the Central American immigrants. Most notably, a class-action case known as American Baptist Churches v. Richard Thornburgh. (Thornburgh was the U.S. Attorney General at the time.) It resulted in 1991 in a district court approved settlement that allowed some of the denied asylum cases to be revisited and provided some protection against deportation for the class members. There was also some language about not having foreign policy considerations determine asylum case judgements.
But have things changed? The stats on the outcome of asylum cases for 2020 would suggest not. Last year 11,500 Guatamalans applied for asylum. 86% were denied. 82% of the 10,500 asylum seekers from El Salvador were denied. Hondurans were denied at a rate of 87% and Mexicans 86%. By contrast 77% of the Chinese who applied for asylum were approved.
(Images in this post are of works on display at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin.)