A group of Salvadoran refugees yesterday capped an 18-day protest walk from New York to Washington with a Capitol Hill press conference attacking U.S. policies in Central America.
The refugees' high-profile participation in the protest marks the first time, at least in Washington, that Salvadoran refugees who do not have legal permission to remain in the U.S. have taken a leading role in protests against American actions in their country. In March 1982, for example, a demonstration against the U.S.-backed elections in El Salvador drew an estimated 23,000 persons but few Salvadoran refugees, none of whom went on the record with their opposition.
"I'm taking a risk to do this, but it's the only way to get in touch with the American people to tell them what is the real situation in El Salvador," 24-year-old Aquilo Magana in an interview. He has lived without proper documentation in Washington for three years since he fled El Salvador where he was a university student.
"We are taking the risk to be deported, but we have to take it," said Magana, a member of the newly-formed "Salvadoran Refugees Against Certification."
Certification refers to the process by which the president must report to Congress every six months on progress by the Salvadoran government to improve its human rights.
Speakers at the press conference, which was sponsored by the U.S. Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (Cispes), took issue with the administration's certification to Congress Wednesday that the human rights situation in El Salvador had improved. They also demanded an end to U.S. "intervention" in the war-torn country.
"We are asking for a halt to deportation and a halt to intervention," said Jim Corbett, a retired rancher from Tucson, Ariz., who has organized an "underground railroad" to help Salvadorans entering the U.S.
Corbett and City Council member Hilda Mason urged that the federal government give Salvadorans who illegally enter the U.S. a temporary visa arrangement called "extended voluntary departure" that would allow them to stay here indefinitely until the war in their country ends. The administration has so far refused to take this step.
Gladis Murillo, 22, said yesterday she left El Salvador after a "death squad" called the "White Hand" came looking for her at home and then burned her house.
"I'm living in New York; I'm cleaning houses," said Murillo. "My family is still over there and I didn't hear about them. That's my case. That's why I'm here to try to talk with the American people to tell them what is really happening in El Salvador." When asked if she was here legally, she replied that was something on which she did not want to comment.
The protestors left New York July 5, walked about eight hours a day and slept at night in churches and homes of people sympathetic to their cause. When they reached Washington late Thursday afternoon they picketed the White House for an hour carrying a banner that read: "More U.S. Intervention = More Central American Refugees."