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Many in U.S. Turn to Canada : Immigration Law Chills Central Americans' Hopes

March 09, 1987|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer

Cesar and Silvia, a young Salvadoran couple, are on the move again.

The couple--who, like the vast majority of their countrymen in the United States have been denied political asylum here--have packed their meager belongings into two cardboard boxes and are steeling themselves for the journey to Canada and what Silvia ominously calls "an unknown destiny." But it is preferable, Cesar said, to the danger that awaits him in El Salvador.

Cesar, a government social worker back home, was active in a conciliatory political party that became the target of right-wing death squads. He was twice arrested and tortured by national police who accused him of being a subversive, Cesar said. (Like others in the United States illegally who are quoted in this article, the couple asked that only their first names be used.)

"Thank God for Canada," said Cesar, who said he is leaving the United States with a less than positive impression. "This government, well aware of the chaotic situation in our troubled (Central American) countries, and having the wherewithal to help, is the one that's offered us the least help."

While the new U.S. immigration law has touched off guarded hope among Mexicans and other illegal immigrants across the country, Central Americans feel left out and more beset than ever.

Cesar and Silvia are among the lucky ones.

Although U.S. immigration officials rejected Silvia's application for political asylum after she was apprehended in 1984 for illegally crossing into the United States to join her husband, Canadian authorities recently granted the couple permission to immigrate there as political refugees.

The discrepancy is not unusual. While both countries claim a similar standard for granting political asylum--a well-founded fear of persecution--the approval rate for Salvadorans' asylum applications is about 30% in Canada compared to about 2% in the United States. The difference in rates is still more pronounced for Guatemalans.

Unsuccessful in gaining political refugee status, Central Americans have melded into this country's general population of Latino illegal aliens. And the Los Angeles area--with an estimated population of about 300,000 Salvadorans and 80,000 Guatemalans--has become the country's undisputed Central American capital.

But since passage last fall of the U.S. immigration bill, a growing sense of doom has gripped Los Angeles' Central American community as full implementation of the bill approaches. May 5 is the starting date for filing amnesty applications under that portion of the law that grants legal status to aliens who can prove they have lived continuously in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982. Enforcement of the law's employer sanctions is to begin in June, when authorities are expected to begin imposing fines on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

Unlike their Mexican counterparts, most of the nation's estimated 500,000 to 1 million Central Americans who fled their troubled nations entered the United States after 1982 or lack the documentation to prove they arrived earlier, making them ineligible for amnesty, according to organizations that serve Central Americans in California. U.S. immigration authorities dispute this, however, contending that a majority arrived before 1982.

"Our worry grows with each passing day," said Jose, 52, a Salvadoran who said he was blacklisted and threatened over his union and church activities back home and who is now involved in organizing his compatriots in Los Angeles in an effort to seek solutions to their predicament. "This new law is going to affect thousands," he said.

"You already see the anguish and near-desperation in people's faces. They run around from one place to another seeking some way out of what they see is in store for them--deportation or the inability to find work and survive."

Strict Rules at Border

The growing despair has been compounded by an announcement two weeks ago of strict new rules at the Canadian border aimed at controlling a growing wave of Central American refugees into that country, after enactment of the U.S. law in November. During a recent 2 1/2-month period, more than 9,000 refugees sought emergency refugee status in Canada.

The restrictions ended a program of automatic admission for foreigners claiming political refugee status. Immediately after the action, hundreds of refugees awaiting processing were temporarily stranded in upstate New York near the Canadian border. Volunteer groups provided food and shelter, and even set up a makeshift refugee camp at a church in Detroit.

For Central Americans, who had perceived Canada as a haven of last resort, it was as if another door had been slammed in their faces.

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