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This Is What It Looks Like When The U.S. Ignores A Refugee Crisis

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 12/11/2015 Roque Planas
ATHENA IMAGE © Courtesy of Maria Luisa Rosal ATHENA IMAGE

As Jorge Alberto Rosal drove along a highway through the Guatemalan province of Zacapa on Aug. 12, 1983, a military jeep stopped his vehicle and several plainclothes men forced him to get inside their truck instead.  

His wife, Blanca Vargas de Rosal, called the police when he didn't return home that night. When they didn’t find him, she desperately searched detention centers, military bases, hospitals and, eventually, morgues, trying to find her husband, a 28-year-old agronomist. She never did. Blanca was two months pregnant. Her daughter, María Luisa, was only 9 months old.

“The memories that I have are collected memories,” María Luisa Rosal told The Huffington Post earlier this year. “From my grandparents, my mom, my cousins, the people that knew him… Most of them talk about how brilliant he was. And how loving he was. And how fair.”

The Guatemalan government acknowledged responsibility for the disappearance of Jorge in a settlement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000, four years after the peace accords that ended the country’s 36-year civil war. The exact reasons for his presumed killing remain unclear. Jorge’s parents had been outspoken political dissidents, and he himself may have been involved in a property dispute with a neighbor, but no one knows for sure. What is certain, though, is that the government never convicted anyone for Jorge’s disappearance, and it has yet to locate his body. He is one of an estimated 45,000 Guatemalan “desaparecidos” -- people killed during the civil war, extrajudicially and without explanation, by the government or by paramilitaries who disposed of the bodies in undisclosed locations.

For most of that period, the United States financed a series of Guatemalan governments responsible for those killings and forced disappearances, viewing them as a bulwark against international communism and as friends to American commerce.

Facing death threats from unidentified men after trying to find Jorge, Blanca and her two children crossed into the United States on tourist visas in 1985, escorted by human rights workers. Rather than welcoming the victims of a tragedy that the U.S. government helped create, federal authorities spent the next five years trying to expel Blanca and her children back to Guatemala, along with the vast majority of the other 14,000 Guatemalans who requested asylum in the 1980s.

Thirty years later, tens of thousands of Central Americans continue to enter the United States looking for refuge from violence. Last year, some 68,000 unaccompanied minors and a similar number of mothers traveling with children crossed the border illegally into the United States, the vast majority of them from the violence- and poverty-plagued Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. As Europe struggles to address the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa, the United Nations released a report last month concluding that unchecked violence committed by gangs and drug cartels in Central America and Mexico have provoked refugee crises that demanded international attention.

“The dramatic refugee crises we are witnessing in the world today are not confined to the Middle East or Africa,” said António Guterres, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, in a press statement. “We are seeing another refugee situation unfolding in the Americas.”  

Most of the Central American refugees have turned themselves in voluntarily to border authorities and then petitioned for asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief from deportation, saying they would face the threat of persecution in their home countries if sent back.

Many will instead be deported, even if their experiences mirror those of the Rosal family.

The family wasn’t attracted to the United States by the American dream. Blanca left Guatemala after receiving several death threats. But she hoped the war would end, and that she and her two children would be able to return. As the deadline for their six-month tourist visas drew to a close, however, it became clear that they would need more time.

Returning to Guatemala wasn’t an option. After her husband was killed, Blanca joined a group of relatives searching for “disappeared” loved ones called the Mutual Support Group for the Reappearance of Our Family Members, known as GAM because of its initials in Spanish. Immediately, she was marked.

After joining GAM, she was chased by a black car with no license plates. She received phone calls from men saying they planned to kill her. When she gave birth to her son, named Jorge Alberto after his father, she traveled in secret to a private hospital to avoid being abducted. She feared walking the streets at night.

“The people who participated in Jorge’s abduction still lived in the town,” Blanca told HuffPost. “By 5 o’clock in the afternoon, I had to be inside the house.”

Blanca knew the Guatemalan military was capable of cruelty. On March 15, 1985, Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, a Guatemalan army general and head of the country’s military government, accused GAM of being allied with “subversives,” according to an affidavit that Blanca submitted with her asylum application. “Subversives” was a loaded term in that time and place understood to mean left-wing guerrillas and anyone who sympathized with them, against whom the military government was waging a scorched-earth campaign.

Two days before Mejía Víctores’ pronouncement, the president of GAM, Héctor Gómez Calito, was killed. Several of his bones, including his skull, were crushed. His tongue had been cut off.

On April 4, 1985, a month before Blanca left, the body of Rosario Godoy Cuevas, Blanca's friend and GAM’s vice president, was found in a car, along with those of Godoy Cuevas’ brother and 2-year-old son. Officials said they lost their lives in a car crash, but mutual friends who went to identify the bodies said the cadavers showed signs of torture . Rosario’s breasts reportedly had bite marks on them and her underwear was stained with blood, which her family viewed as evidence of rape. Her child’s fingernails had been torn off.

By then living in Arlington, Virginia, and making ends meet with the help of a network of activists and church groups, Blanca submitted an asylum claim on June 12, 1986, for her family. In the claim, she described the threats, her efforts to find her husband and the stories of her friends’ killings.

“My children are now 2 and 3 years old. The smallest has never seen his father,” the affidavit reads. “For their sake I realize that I can not return… The men who kidnapped my husband are still there, doing as they please, working for the government. If I return, I know they will kill me.”

U.S. asylum law says that if someone can demonstrate they face the threat of persecution if deported to their home country, they can instead stay in the United States, become a permanent resident and eventually apply for citizenship. It’s the most generous of several forms of humanitarian relief offered to immigrants.

By any reasonable standard, the Rosal family should easily have qualified. Blanca’s husband had been killed, she’d received multiple threats herself and she had to be escorted out of the country by human rights workers from Amnesty International. On June 12, 1986, she submitted her claim and sat down for an interview with an asylum officer. She received her answer months later.

“The Department of State completed a thorough review of the evidence and documentation that you submitted and carefully considered your claim to asylum,” the letter, dated Oct. 23, 1986, reads. “It is the opinion of the State Department that you have failed to establish a well-founded fear of persecution.”

The letter informed her that her work authorization had also been revoked and that she should prepare to face deportation proceedings.

“It was hard here,” Blanca said. “We were living off of donations. They wanted to deport us. At one point they gave us 24 hours to leave the country.”

It’s unclear why the Guatemalan government killed Jorge, though his family had faced threats before. His parents, both physicians, fled to Costa Rica in 1980, after their names appeared on a list tacked to a door at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, where Jorge’s father taught classes. Such lists had been used to announce the imminent killings of faculty members whose political leanings opened them up to suspicion of sympathizing with the country’s left-wing guerrillas. Paramilitaries would post the lists to intimidate the targeted academics into fleeing the country.

Both of Jorge’s parents opposed the military government, sometimes publicly. His mother had criticized the government on a radio show for turning a blind eye toward widespread malnutrition. (Jorge Alberto’s father, Jorge Edilberto Rosal Meléndez, would eventually become a signatory of the Guatemalan peace accords, representing the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Party, a left-wing political party that began as a guerrilla group.)

Unlike his exiled parents, Jorge seldom engaged in politics. Instead, the young agronomist with an agricultural engineering degree from Texas A&M University focused on developing a 9,500-bird poultry farm on property that belonged to his parents. He was on his way to the farm from his mother-in-law’s home the day he was abducted.

It’s possible that authorities viewed Jorge with suspicion because of his parents’ political leanings. It’s also possible that politics offered a cover for a more mundane motive. One of Jorge’s relatives said that a neighbor had called a general at the Zacapa military command and asked him “to eliminate Mr. Rosal because of a dispute about cattle crossing over property,” according to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights .

What is clear is that the U.S. had facilitated Jorge Alberto Rosal’s disappearance by supporting Guatemala’s murderous government. The U.S.-backed military government led by Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores came to power just days before Rosal’s disappearance (having ousted the preceding military government of General Efraín Ríos Montt, which was itself established by coup). But the U.S. had consistently helped destabilize Guatemala since the CIA engineered a coup against the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, under the pretext of fighting communism.

The Carter administration offered a brief, though incomplete, respite from the years of U.S. patronage of a series of authoritarian governments, passing laws requiring stricter compliance with human rights standards before doling out aid that buoyed the abusive governments of Guatemala in the name of anti-communism.

But under President Ronald Reagan, a stalwart Cold Warrior, the U.S. resumed its support of Central America’s right-wing governments more enthusiastically than ever, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the Guatemalan military, even as stories of grotesque human rights abuses appeared in the pages of U.S. newspapers. Reagan also helped outfit the right-wing Contra rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, continuing to support them covertly even after the U.S. Congress forbade it in 1984.

For the Reagan administration, acknowledging the threat of persecution faced by the Rosal family would have meant admitting that its strategy had produced a human rights catastrophe. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the region’s violence entered the United States, often illegally, in the 1980s, the Reagan administration rejected 98 percent of Guatemalan and 97 percent of  applications , according to a 2013 study by the Migration Policy Institute.

By contrast, Nicaraguans who applied for asylum after fleeing the Sandinista government were approved at a rate that peaked at 84 percent in 1987, according to a 1997 Congressional Research Service report . A lawsuit resolved in 1991 ordered the courts to rehear Guatemalan and Salvadoran asylum cases from the 1980s, finding that foreign policy concerns had unduly influenced the cases’ outcomes.

“In the 1980s, U.S. public and covert support for Central American militaries implicitly gave them permission to pursue scorched earth operations against their enemies without fearing a backlash from Washington,” Kate Doyle, a researcher at the National Security Archive, told HuffPost in an email. “As a consequence of the violence, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fled their countries seeking safety. The Reagan administration refused to acknowledge its role in helping create the flow of desperate migrants, and did everything in its power to stop them from finding refuge in the United States.”

While the State Department insisted that the Rosal family would be safe if deported, the Guatemalan government wasn’t so sure. In 1986, then-President Vinicio Cerezo traveled to the United States for a regional summit meeting hosted by the Carter Center in Georgia. A friend and political activist who often served as Blanca’s translator received an invitation and offered to get her into the event.

Cerezo arrived late and spoke last. As he left the room, Blanca confronted him.

“I only wanted to ask the president of Guatemala one question -- could he guarantee my security and that of my children?” Blanca told HuffPost, recalling that there were other people around to hear the exchange. “He told me ‘no.’”

Blanca views the president’s simple admission as a turning point in her asylum case, but several other factors worked in her favor.

If anything about the Rosal family’s experience can be described as “lucky,” it was that several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Americas Watch -- a precursor to today’s Human Rights Watch -- had helped get them out of Guatemala and publicized their mistreatment and the difficulties they faced winning asylum. Those efforts culminated in an episode of “Nightline” featuring the Rosal family that aired in 1987, shortly after Oliver North, then a staff member of the National Security Council, testified before Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

A network of churches helped Blanca make ends meet after the State Department yanked her work authorization. And perhaps most importantly, Blanca had a pro bono lawyer skillful enough to appeal the State Department’s rejection of her claim and deportation order in court.

Though the U.S. almost never granted asylum to Guatemalans at the time and the State Department had taken the unusual step of interceding in the case, the Rosal family’s lawyer, Enid González Alemán, said she felt hopeful going into trial because they had such an unusually long list of documents detailing the risks her clients would face if deported.

“The evidence that we presented in her case was as thick as a phone book,” González told HuffPost. “The government attorney saw that, and didn’t argue with us. And the judge granted it.”

Still, González said the Rosal family’s difficulty securing asylum despite the strength of their case highlighted how hard it was for the vast majority of Central American applicants at that time.

“I think that what’s exceptional about her case is that it really shows to what extent it was almost impossible to get asylum,” González said. “She had pro bono assistance. Most people in this situation have nothing. They’ve had to flee and leave everything they have. Fill in the blanks what could have happened.”

González still practices immigration law. When the Obama administration suddenly expanded family detention last year, she traveled to the temporary facility in Artesia, New Mexico, to represent women and children who, like the Rosal family, were fleeing violence in Central America.

Three decades have passed since the Rosal family first reached U.S. soil. The crisis they fled was different, in several important ways, from the circumstances causing families to stream out of Central America today. Most of the roughly 1 million people who crossed illegally into the U.S. from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s fled their homes because of political violence. Today’s migrants are being driven from their homes primarily by violent criminal gangs that are not overtly political, though they symptomize the breakdown of the rule of law in countries with little infrastructure and a history of civil war, authoritarian rule and U.S. interference.

To González, though, the dominant theme remains the same: People with credible asylum claims routinely fail to win relief.

“This is a very complicated field of law -- you can’t just go to anybody and ask for help,” González said. “It hasn’t changed much, to be honest with you. You have such a lack of respect for people who are in such dire need, precisely because they’re being persecuted. This relief is supposed to exist because people have to flee because of persecution.”

In some ways, she said, the situation for Central American asylum seekers has gotten worse. Those who make the trip today face far more danger traveling along routes controlled by organized crime networks and human smugglers, who subject migrants to sexual abuse or hold them for ransom.

In addition, the Obama administration has put a much stronger emphasis on corralling women and children from Central America seeking asylum into family detention centers. In the 1980s, when the detention system stood at a tiny fraction of today’s size , Central American migrants were much more likely to avoid detention altogether.

“It’s really shameful that we while we talk about human rights and exporting democracy, we’re caging families,” María Luisa said. “This is a political decision.”

These days, María Luisa works as a field organizer with the D.C.-based School of the Americas Watch, a group that aims to put an end to the U.S. practice of training Latin American military officials who then turn their security forces against the public.

She has been arrested twice for civil disobedience. The first time, in December 2013, she’d sat down in front of a bus carrying deportees and locked arms with other protesters to keep it from moving. The second time, in May 2014, she was putting up a mural in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to remember people who were killed or tortured at the hands of Latin American officials trained by the United States.

She was found guilty both times, but was excused from serving the six-month jail sentences her convictions carried. Blanca accompanied her daughter to court to show moral support. She says her daughter’s sense of conviction reminds her of her studious and disciplined husband.

“I used to think that if I could study as hard as I could, I would be able to use my academic experience to be able to find him somehow,” María Luisa said. “I quickly learned that that’s not the case… But I feel like I won’t be able to be at peace with myself if I haven't done everything in my power to search for him. I don’t care if I’m 80 years old and still looking for him. Because he deserves it and our society deserves it.”

Blanca feels the same way. To this day, the Guatemalan government is still discovering and excavating mass graves from the period when Jorge was killed. Blanca and María Luisa gave DNA samples about four years ago to Guatemalan officials to help them identify his remains.

“We’re hoping for them to call us any day now,” Blanca said. “So that there can be justice.”

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