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Insensitivity on Refugees

February 25, 1985

Some of the problems created by the Reagan Administration's insensitive handling of refugees who have fled to this country from El Salvador were graphically illustrated last week when members of Congress visited the long-term detention facility operated by the U.S. Immigration Service in El Centro. They found 492 men crowded into a facility with an official capacity of 344. The delegation talked to detainees who had been held as long as five months in spartan facilities designed to hold suspected illegal immigrants for no more than a week.

The men held at the El Centro facility are suspected illegal immigrants who have requested formal deportation hearings rather than accepting voluntary repatriation to their homeland, as most illegal aliens caught by the immigration service routinely do. The Salvadorans claim that the civil war in their country makes it dangerous for them to go home, and that they should be allowed to stay in the United States as refugees. The process of petitioning for asylum can take months, however, and in the meantime they are held in detention.

The harsh conditions at El Centro give additional credibility to proposals to release the Salvadorans. The Justice Department is authorized by administrative decision to grant them special legal status known as extended voluntary departure. Under U.S. immigration regulations, that status can be conferred on any immigrant who admits that he is in the United States illegally and agrees to leave the country at an unspecified future date. That person then is allowed to remain in the United States until political or social turmoil in his homeland has subsided. In recent years this status has been given to illegal immigrants from Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Poland. The Reagan Administration says that it has refused to give extended-voluntary-departure status to Salvadorans because they are here as economic rather than political refugees. But a more likely reason is that the White House and the State Department do not want to embarrass the Salvadoran government, which is receiving massive amounts of U.S. aid to defeat a rebellion that has so far cost 50,000 lives.

Because the Administration has refused to act, Congress has begun to move on the issue. Last month Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) introduced a bill that would simply halt the deportation of Salvadoran illegals for up to two years. That may be the only appropriate action if the Justice Department stubbornly refuses flexibility.

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