'The US has the most generous immigration policy in the world,' President Clinton recently boasted. Yet Clinton's own actions tell quite a different story. He has fanned the flames of anti-immigrant hysteria more than any president in decades. In the last three years, he has doubled the budget of the department which polices immigrants, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS), and nearly doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. Last year, 25,000 more immigrants were deported than three years earlier.
With the presidential election looming last year, Clinton signed a welfare bill which stripped away the right of legal immigrants to receive most forms of public assistance. In October he signed a new immigration law which will lead to the forced deportation of up to five million immigrants many of whom are political refugees who have been living and paying taxes in the US for many years.
In a piece of bitter irony, a large number of the victims of Clinton's crackdown on immigration are Central American refugees like the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who fled to the US in the 1980s to escape the terror of US sponsored wars in their homelands. Throughout the Cold War, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of democratically elected governments, only to replace them with murderous dictatorships backed up by death squads. In Guatemala, the US overthrew a populist government in 1954. Over the next 35 years the CIA funded and trained 'security force' murdered up to 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly civilians, in a bloodletting that Noam Chomsky aptly argued 'would have won nods of approval from Himmler and Goering.'
Last year the US Defence Department admitted that between 1982 and 1991 its School of the Americas trained an assortment of Latin American military leaders including Roberto D'Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador's death squads in techniques of torture, rape and murder.
In Nicaragua during the 1980s, the CIA created, funded, trained and directed a 'popular' armed opposition, called the contras, to return power to the wealthy after the Sandinista revolution granted substantial reforms to poor Nicaraguans. The contras killed more than 40,000 Nicaraguans in a decade.
Clinton behaves as if the US bears no responsibility for the mass exodus of Central Americans during this period. He has argued, 'we don't want to refight the battles of the 1980s. We're not a house cleaning administration.' Yet, if deported from the US, thousands of Central Americans will face certain persecution. and possible death.
Rodolfo Alas was one of these victims. He was a union activist at a Massachusetts curtain factory who took part in a strike for union recognition last autumn. The workers won their strike, but afterwards, Alas was targeted for his role in it. Two months ago, he received a call from his boss offering him a job. Perplexed, Alas answered that since he already had a job, he wasn't interested in a new one. Within minutes immigration agents stormed his apartment and arrested him. The INS had no sympathy for Alas's desperate pleas and his claims that he would face persecution if they forced him to return to El Salvador. It denied his bid for political asylum and offered him two options: either he could serve five months in jail or face deportation. He chose to be deported, since a stint in prison almost guaranteed deportation later anyway. Within a few weeks of returning to El Salvador, Rodolfo Alas was assassinated.
Clinton claims that immigrants from countries such as El Salvador, who were granted temporary refugee status in the 1980s, should return home because their governments have evolved into 'democracies'. Yet death squads have experienced a resurgence in the 1990s in El Salvador. In fact, Americas Watch reported a rise in 'political murders of leaders and grassroots activists' of the FMLN, the long standing resistance movement, in the months leading up to the 1994 elections which, according to the US political establishment, marked El Salvador's return to democracy. Some 45 percent of the population did not vote in the election, virtually guaranteeing the victory of the far right ARENA party.
The same point can be made about Guatemala. The 1985 election there was proclaimed by the US Embassy to be 'the final step in the re-establishment of democracy in Guatemala.' Yet in the 1990 election fewer than 30 percent of the population voted. in the first six months of 1992, the Archbishop's Office of Human Rights reported at least 399 assassinations.
The new immigration law went into effect in the US on 1 April. It removes the right to a deportation hearing for immigrants entering the US illegally. An immigration agent can stop foreigners and demand a wide range of documents including, for example, proof of vaccination. In many cases, an immigrant who is unable to produce those documents can be deported immediately, without a hearing. Even political exiles must convince an immigration officer that they have a 'credible fear' of returning home. If unconvinced, the agent can deport them on the spot without even mentioning the immigrant's right to apply for political asylum.
'Our enforcement priorities are on the removal of criminal aliens,' said Paul Virtue of the INS. But, according to current US law, an 'aggravated felon' can be guilty of a crime as minor as shoplifting. A legal resident can now be deported for committing two instances of 'moral turpitude' which includes offences such as jumping a subway turnstile.
On 30 September, which is the deadline given to undocumented immigrants to apply for permanent status, the law will open the door to mass deportation unless it is stopped. Immigrants won a small victory last month, when protesters embarrassed Clinton into reinstating welfare benefits for some disabled immigrants by exposing the consequences of the cuts disabled immigrants being thrown out of nursing homes. In the past few months thousands of immigrants and their supporters have begun to organise to stop this barbaric law. For many it is a matter of life and death as the murder of Rodolfo Alas shows all too vividly.