Last year, in the middle of the night, Israel Benavides received an emotional phone call in his Adams Morgan apartment from his sister in El Salvador.
She was calling from the only phone in the village to say that their 23-year-old brother Abel had been found dead on a roadway, his hands and feet bound and three bullets in his head.
Abel, after living in the U.S. illegally for four years, had returned to his homeland for a short visit, never planning to stay. On his way back to the U.S., he was caught by Mexican immigration officials at Mexicali and turned back to El Salvador. Three months later he was dead, another victim, his family believes, of the conflict in El Salvador.
It was a nightmare experience then. But now Israel -- and Abel's widow Florinda, whom Israel has sheltered since his brother's death -- find themselves facing one of their own. Last week, both were arrested as illegal aliens by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) investigators and are now awaiting a deportation hearing.
The tale of Israel, who works on the cleanup crew at the Jefferson Memorial, and Florinda, who was a cleaning woman at a suburban police station, is one commonly heard in the large underground Salvadoran community here. Like many, they came here to better themselves economically. And like many, they now fear to return because of the daily carnage that some estimate has claimed 22,000 lives.
Their plight, and the plight of tens of thousands of other Salvadorans like them, poses a dilemma for the State Department. Officials there have refused to grant them temporary political asylum, contending they are economic refugees. At the same time, they contend that an economic refugee who is deported does not face any more danger than a Salvadoran who never left the homeland. They say they have never heard of a deportee being killed.
Abel Benavides, according to his family and friends, was a congenial young man who liked to tease, had no known enemies and was not politically active. There was no evidence of robbery as a motive for his murder, according to Israel.
But many of the Salvadorans whose bodies turn up mutilated and dead day after day, they say, are not necessarily the enemies of either the guerrillas or the government forces at war in that country, but people just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"If the guerrillas don't get you, the military does," said Israel, as he sat in his apartment decorated with posters of American tourists in Texas picnicking and being serenaded by a Latin band, and a picture of Pope John Paul II.
Israel, a soft-spoken, impeccably dressed man, said his brother also used to like to dress well and, in El Salvador, "if you are a little better dressed than everybody else, you are suspect."
When Florinda was picked up last week by immigration agents from Baltimore, she was cleaning the Montgomery County police station in Bethesda. Israel was arrested when the agents escorted Florinda back to their Washington apartment to pick up her 13-month-old American-born child, Abel's son. The child's babysitter, also an illegal alien, was arrested, too.
Word of the Benavides' arrests spread quickly through Washington's Latino community since it involved a scuffle that many of the neighbors witnessed.
Israel said he opened his apartment door and saw some men he did not know standing there and began to run from them. Agent Bill West of the INS Baltimore office, chased him out of the building, and then, according to Israel and four witnesses, tackled him in the street, kicking and punching him.
"The guy had his gun pointed at Mr. Benavides and was saying in Spanish, 'No quiero problemas' I don't want problems ," said Luis Velazquez, who works in Israel's neighborhood and said he witnessed the fight.
Wallace Gray, chief of the INS Baltimore office, said West's report on the incident states that Israel punched and kicked West and tried to grab his gun. He said West suffered a sprained wrist and several abrasions in the scuffle and is on sick leave.
Israel's physician, Dr. Efrain Guerrero, said Israel suffered lacerations and bruises on his arms, chest, back and nose. He was released on a $3,000-bond -- paid by his employer -- and is scheduled for a deportation hearing Aug. 31. Florinda was released without bond.
"Five minutes after those arrests happened, people were coming up to me and saying, 'Las cosas son malas' -- things are bad," said Willie Vazquez, director of the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs. "We've been able to keep them immigration agents at bay for a while, but I'm sure we're going to see more of this."
Both Latino government officials and community leaders said they were concerned that the INS would resume arresting illegal immigrants at private businesses in the wake of a U.S. Court of Appeals decision last month that eased strictures against immigration officials who enter restaurants and other private businesses in search of illegal workers.