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Salvadoran Finds Hope in Ruling on Asylum

March 12, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | TImes Staff Writer

Salvador Hernandez is a 23-year-old graphic arts student at L.A. Trade-Tech who works during the day in a print shop. A slight, neat young man of considerable soft-spoken charm, he has bright eyes, a narrow mustache and cheeks that dimple as he smiles. He smiles frequently, even when referring to the torture he received at the hands of the National Guard in El Salvador. It is as if his desire to connect with his listener overtakes the content of his speech.

But this week he has a special reason to smile. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that refugees seeking asylum do not have to prove they clearly face persecution if they return home. The Immigration and Naturalization Service wants to deport him and the ruling might help, both he and his lawyer agree, in the next round of his fight for asylum, which has been going on since 1983. It also might help many of the thousands of aliens who are seeking political asylum here, including 11,000 who filed such claims in the last fiscal year.

Last November, Hernandez was granted his request for asylum by the Justice Department's Immigration Court. "Barely," said his lawyer, Lee O'Connor, at the National Center for Immigrants Rights Inc. The court found him qualified on the basis of past persecution but did not find his fears of persecution if he went back to be well founded.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed that ruling. The INS found no grounds for asylum in the six days of torture by the National Guard that Hernandez had endured in 1980 for his political activities as a student, in the fact that several of his associates were found killed, in the public labeling of him as a terrorist and criminal in the press, and the army's search for him in 1982. Hernandez, the INS said, was ineligible for asylum. (Michael Straus, INS attorney for the case, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.)

On Monday, the Supreme Court said justices should consider "subjective beliefs" of an alien and that fears could be well-founded even when there was a less than 50% chance of occurrence.

Hernandez's subjective beliefs are based on his recollection of gruesome details of the past. According to his sworn declaration, he and his younger brother, Ismael, got involved in politics in 1977 while they were in high school. They joined the Revolutionary Secondary School Movement, advocating educational reforms such as free public education and more schools. The movement was part of the Bloque Popular Revolucionario, a coalition of anti-government groups, and Hernandez soon became active in the broader issues of the coalition. He leafleted, painted slogans, joined in demonstrations and eventually started participating in secret security groups setting up barricades and providing security for demonstrators.

At the same time, he was working with a Catholic group, the Comunidades Cristianos de Base. Also connected with the Bloque, this group advocated liberation theology, serving the poor and oppressed. Hernandez helped nurse people wounded in the fighting in the countryside who had been brought to a safehouse in San Salvador.

His activities in El Salvador do not sound much different from some of what he has been doing here. His social action is political and much of it centers around church.

"I like church," he grinned, when he mentioned St. Isabel's for perhaps the 10th time. He prays and plays volleyball there, and, through his parish youth group he has been informing the community about the new immigration law granting amnesty to those who have been here since 1982 and helping people prepare to apply for it. The group also supports the United Farm Workers, he said: "If they need help, we help."

And when he is not with the church, he said, he can be found at Casa Salvador, working on "stopping U.S. intervention in Central America, something like that."

El Salvador, however, was another time and another place. There is something disconcerting, eerie almost, about the two phases of his life--a revolutionary life in one country that he relates dispassionately and a politically involved life here that he describes with a normalcy that would be unremarkable under other circumstances.

In El Salvador his activities were increasingly dangerous and they led him to leave home and move in with a family of politically active teachers. After two of his companions were found dead and mutilated, he stopped visiting home for his and his family's mutual security. Finally, during a three-day national strike, he has sworn, the Death Squad came. He and his companions resisted with small arms during the night, but surrendered in the morning when 80 soldiers surrounded the house.

During the next six days, Hernandez was given no food, blindfolded, beaten, interrogated, hung by his hair, given electrical shocks, placed on electrified box springs, and cut with pliers in such a manner that the skin was torn off his right breast. On the sixth day, the International Red Cross removed him on a stretcher.

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