HARLINGEN, Tex. — They came by the hundreds, reeking of days without washing, their faces showing the misery of sleeping in open fields. They stood in line Tuesday, each one clutching a small packet of papers, waiting a turn before the immigration authorities and, with luck, a chance to leave what had become their prison without bars.
These were the refugees from Central America--Nicaragua mostly--and what they wanted from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service here was an official stamp on their applications for amnesty, one that authorized them to apply for asylum in another part of the country.
For at least 2,000 people, the wait had been a long one. The vigil for some began Dec. 16, when immigration officials imposed a procedure that discouraged amnesty applicants from leaving South Texas, one of the poorest areas in the country, until there had been a thorough review of their cases.
Those who had money stayed in motels. Those who had none, and there were hundreds of them, camped out in the shells of abandoned buildings. Or, worse yet, in fields where their only protection was often a piece of plastic sheeting propped up by twigs.
The refugees' fate began to change Monday, when U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela told the immigration service to stop the new procedure until there could be a hearing Thursday on the matter.
On Tuesday, the line circled the immigration building where amnesty applications are processed. By day's end, the immigration service had processed 967 claims, the most in the history of the district. There was another line as well, almost as long, where people waited for a plate of beans, bread, two cookies and a banana that volunteers were giving out.
"I figure we've fed four or five hundred," said Dolores Muniz, a volunteer who believed too little had been done to help the refugees and that they should be allowed to stay in the United States. "It's our obligation as Americans. This country was founded by immigrants. The Statue of Liberty says we should bring them in."
Just then, Alejandro Tojilo came up and asked for some food, saying he had gotten his stamp and would be leaving in a few minutes. He was going to Los Angeles, he said. He had relatives who lived on Imperial Highway.
And out on the road, other men who had gotten approval to leave were standing on the highway, thumbs out, headed north.
On Tuesday morning, the hundreds of people who had been sleeping in the field across from nearby Brownsville's Casa Oscar Romero refugee center began making their way to Harlingen. Volunteers armed with green plastic garbage bags began gathering the mounds of debris that had been shelter the day before. And Linda Yanez, one of the immigration lawyers who filed suit against the INS, was trying to get her case ready. There were witnesses to find and persuade them, once again, that they should stay for the Thursday hearing. One of them, Javier Valiente, was reluctant. He wanted to be off for Los Angeles, but Yanez prevailed.
Sees INS Deterrent
And then she said she believed the INS had purposely discouraged travel so there would be enough suffering to act as a deterrent for others wanting to make the journey from Central America.
"I think that was the whole idea," she said. "They said the purpose was to deter entry, so word would get back to Central America that there would be no easy ride."
INS spokesman Duke Austin said there was never any restriction placed on travel, only that the cases would be adjudicated in South Texas. But a Reagan Administration spokesman conceded that, "as a practicality, none of them had the money to fly to Miami and then come back for their hearing." And another INS official said that one of the methods used to keep refugees in South Texas was to deny them authorization that would allow them to work.
Robert Rubin, a member of the San Francisco Lawyers' Committee for Urban Affairs and another party to the suit, said that the INS had no defense for its action.
And he said that keeping people in South Texas is a disservice to those coming across the border because there are so few immigration lawyers to handle cases in this remote agricultural region.