WASHINGTON — By a narrow 19-16 vote, the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee approved a measure Wednesday that would halt federal deportation of about 500,000 illegal aliens to protect them from "civil strife" in their native El Salvador.
The bill would allow the Salvadorans "extended voluntary departure" status, or legal residence in this country for about two years, during which Congress' General Accounting Office would conduct a study of human-rights conditions in the Central American nation. Then Congress would decide whether to allow the Salvadorans to stay longer.
The Reagan Administration has maintained that the bill would create a new class of legal immigrants, circumventing current federal immigration law and making the United States a magnet for Salvadorans fleeing poverty, not political strife.
Rodino Support Critical
Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), whose support of the measure was critical, conceded that final passage "is going to be difficult . . . with the Justice Department being opposed and the Administration being opposed."
Final passage of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), would be a victory for the sanctuary movement--an effort by individuals and some U.S. church groups to illegally shelter Central American refugees, many of whom are Salvadorans fleeing their country's 7-year-old civil war.
Republicans complained that the Moakley bill would undermine federal law by granting asylum to a specific group of people. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) called it "a bizarre form of myopia that looks only at El Salvador as the only country where human rights are trampled on."
Fear of Persecution
The Refugee Act of 1980 provides that the Immigration and Naturalization Service stay the deportation of anyone, regardless of homeland, who demonstrates a well-founded fear of persecution at home on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. The law was intended to take politics out of the process and deal with refugees uniformly.
Underlying the debate about whether current conditions in El Salvador represent a true peril was an assertion by supporters of the Moakley bill that the Administration has played favorites in granting extended voluntary departure status mostly to refugees from regimes the Administration does not like.
"This Administration has sadly repoliticized the process," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who supports the bill. He noted that immigrants from Afghanistan, Poland and Ethiopia, whose regimes are hostile to the United States, have had an easier road to asylum than Salvadorans.
129 Got Asylum
According to the INS, in fiscal 1985, asylum was granted to 129 Salvadorans and denied to 2,299 of their countrymen. The status was granted to 549 Poles and denied to 737, and among Ethiopians, 210 pleas were granted and 387 denied, an INS spokesman said.
Supporters of the Moakley measure, pointing to the estimated 1,900 political deaths in El Salvador in the last year, say that fears are justified among the Salvadorans who have made the 1,500-mile journey to the U.S. border.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who has met Salvadorans at an INS detention camp in El Centro, said: "Unless you assume they're all lying, the fear of these people is real. It's heartfelt."
Joined by 2 Democrats
Republicans denouncing the bill were joined by Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), who is sponsor of pending immigration legislation that would grant permanent residency to illegal aliens already in the United States.
Mazzoli and other opponents said that the war in El Salvador has eased in recent years and that refugees who have already been deported have not suffered any retribution.
Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) said the Salvadoran immigrants he has talked to "were here basically looking for work."
A version of the bill is before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A Moakley spokesman said the congressman hopes that both measures will come up for a vote in September.