IMMIGRATION

The new underground railway

ANNE NELSON January 10 1983
IMMIGRATION

The new underground railway

ANNE NELSON January 10 1983

The new underground railway

In the modest house on a quiet Tucson, Ariz., side street, the pink curtains are always drawn. Two Guatemalan families lead a cramped, fearful existence inside, leaving surreptitiously only to fetch groceries or go to work. Yolanda and Antonio, one couple, have been on the run since last January, when a squad from the Guatemalan Pacific Naval Base raided their small town. Antonio’s uncle and brother-inlaw were brutally tortured and killed, and the remaining family fled to Mexico.

Yolanda and Antonio were smuggled across the Mexican border into Tucson by an ecumenical church-based “underground railway” that has been spreading rapidly through the United States and Canada in recent months. For the American participants, it is in part a humanitarian response to the growing problem of Central American refugees and in part a gesture of civil disobedience against the Central American policy of the Reagan administration. “When the government itself sponsors the torture of entire peoples and then makes it a felony to shelter those seeking refuge,” states Jim Corbett, the lanky Arizona rancher who led Antonio’s family to safety, “law-abiding protests merely train us to live with atrocity.”

The penalties are stiff for harboring an illegal immigrant: in the United States as much as $2,000 in fines and as long as five years’ imprisonment. Nevertheless, Corbett and his associates at

Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church have chosen to be the publicly defiant spokesmen for the rest of the movement, which is now moving hundreds of Salvadoran and Guatemalan “illegals” quietly across the face of North America. That, of course, represents only a tiny fraction of the epic displacement that is occurring in Central America. Since 1979 more than 300,000 Central Americans have fled their homes, many of them ending up in Mexico. A report from the Mexican Catholic Church states that “conservative figures indicate [that there are] one million internal refugees in Guatemala.”

Many of the refugees feel endangered until they reach the United States or Canada. But the sheer size of the diaspora, along with unspoken links between foreign policy and immigration policy, has made it difficult for them to win refugee status. Last year, for example, 6,043 Salvadorans applied for political asylum in the United States.

Of these, only two were accepted, while 10,500 others were deported back to El Salvador, many to be killed upon

arrival. This year there are 22,300 Salvadoran asylum cases pending. Canada’s record is slightly better. The most recent figures, for the first 11 months of 1982, show that of 42 Salvadorans who made their way to Canada and applied to Canada’s Refugee Status Advisory Committee, 18 were granted refugee status and 24 were rejected (but not deported to El Salvador; they could go on to seek asylum elsewhere). Of 88 Guatemalans who applied within Canada for sanctuary, 61 were accepted. The problem is, very few Central Americans can get as far as Canada. Notes Toronto immigration lawyer Jeffry House: “The United States acts as our buffer.”

But the underground railway through Mexico, the United States and Canada is not the only alternative open to those fleeing Central America’s bloodbath. People can apply at Canadian embassies or consulates for refugee status before arriving in Canada. In Harlingen, Tex., a legal aid society called Proyecto Libertad helps Central Americans on the verge of deportation to make asylum applications to Canada. But Lisa Brodyaga, the lawyer who heads the project, fears that Canada’s open-door policy may be gradually easing shut. “There has been a noticeable change in policy as to how applications are handled since August,” she states. “They have really tightened up.” Mennonite minister Ernst Harder of Dallas agrees, noting that the acceptance rate for the 160 applicants he has processed has dropped from about 90 per cent to 60 per cent since the summer, with the odds weighted against the poor and the uneducated. “The Canadian government will take anyone who is educated who also fears for his life. But we can’t get the campesinos [peasants] in even if they do fear for their lives— and they include the majority of refugees.”

The federal department of employment and immigration staunchly insists that its policy remains unchanged. Although the 1981 quotaoffering as many as 1,000 places to refugees from all Latin American countries—was not met (only 137 Latins arrived in Canada as refugees, while an as yet undetermined number applied for status after arrival), Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy insists that he will make more space available for this year and next. Already, the Canadian consul in Dallas, Floyd Tufts, complains that his office, which processed about 200 Latin Americans last year, has been swamped with applications. Tufts believes that U.S. immigration policy has forced Canada to shoulder more than its share of the refugee burden. “If the United States would give them asylum, the bottom would drop out of the number who want to go to Canada,” he says, stressing that the United States is also a signatory of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. “We Canadians seem to be leading the way, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone following.” Tufts admits that white-collar refugees may have an advantage in the application process. “Things are difficult in Canada, too,” he says, “especially for someone who cannot read and write. Many of them know nothing about Canada other than that it’s cold.”

But those difficulties are nothing compared to the prospect of violent death that drives more and more Central Americans northward to seek sanctuary, illegally if necessary. The underground railway’s Jim Corbett, who studied philosophy at Harvard, claims that until now U.S. service organizations trying to help the fleeing Central Americans have been caught up in the costly and time-consuming process of stopping deportations in court. By comparison, he says, “evasion services are highly cost effective.” The movement has brought some families, such as Antonio’s, across the Mexican borders with false documents, while other Central Americans have found their ways to refuge after swimming the Rio Grande River. A network of volunteers transports the refugees northward, usually in family cars. Along the way they are given shelter, sometimes in private homes and often in churches.

For its part, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) says that the Central Americans are fleeing civil strife, not persecution. As well, the underground railway is considered a minor problem for the INS. In the most recent fiscal year the service arrested 12,473 professional smugglers and apprehended 74,941 illegal aliens they were bringing into the United States. “This guy Corbett is only bringing in 250 aliens,” says INS spokesman Duke Austin. “But we’re concerned about it and we may arrest him in the future.” Yolanda and Antonio sit in their house in the shadow of Arizona’s desert mesas, talking wonderingly about the mountains of ice they have heard about in Canada. They look dubious. But at the mention of deportation back to Guatemala, Yolanda’s eyes fill with tears: “We would return to Guatemala to die but we could go to Canada to live.” -ANNE NELSON in Tucson, with Val Ross in Toronto.

Val Ross