A network of groups advocating the rights of Central American refugees yesterday pushed for the adoption of a federal bill to suspend temporarily deportation of illegal immigrants.
The bill is the chief alternative to deportation of thousands of illegal aliens from El Salvador, according to representatives for the Central American Refugee Center and the Salvadoran Refugee Committee, sponsors of the immigration forum yesterday at All Souls Church, 16th and Harvard Streets NW.
Silvia J. Rosales, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center and a key speaker at the forum, said the refugee community supports the bill and, for four years, has pushed for its adoption.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), would suspend deportation of refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua for at least two years to allow for a federal investigation of human rights and health conditions in those countries. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) has sponsored a similar bill. The legislation has passed the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Jim McGovern, legislative assistant for Moakley, said Moakley's office stepped up efforts to get the refugee community more involved in supporting the legislation, which is aimed at protecting people who left their homes because of human rights conditions.
"Call congressmen and tell them of your situation," said McGovern, who gave those at the forum a list of Congress members who should be urged to support the bill. "Most of them have not talked to a refugee from El Salvador. Most of them see you as statistics."
Rosales said she thinks the chances of the bill's adoption have improved because more politicians seem to recognize and want to take action about the plight of illegal immigrants.
Advocacy groups for Central American refugees said that only about 10 percent of the estimated 120,000 to 150,000 Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in the Washington area are eligible for legal status under the new immigration law, which grants amnesty to undocumented workers who can prove they came to the United States before Jan. 1, 1982.
"Why have the undocumented refugees not come pouring into the streets to listen to alternatives?" Rosales asked about 75 people attending the forum. "The answer is, our people are underground simply because we are refugees, undocumented and afraid."
As a result of the immigration law, Rosales said, undocumented workers are incurring increased "abuses and discrimination." Salaries of some illegals have been taken away by employers who say they will need the money if they have to pay a penalty for employing undocumented workers, she said. Others, she said, have been unable to rent apartments or have been evicted because they are illegals.
"If the bill doesn't pass," Rosales said, "this country is going to see a growing underground group of Salvadorans who will stay until they are forced to leave or are deported."
Advocacy groups said other alternatives to deportation -- such as going to other countries or returning home -- are limited. Those who return home, they say, face dangers, and those who try to move elsewhere face immigration quotas.