Guatemalans in U.S. Face Deportation Threat
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Thousands of Guatemalans who fled to the U.S. in the 1990s to escape the bloody civil war in their country are now facing possible deportation. They have work permits and Social Security numbers. Many have built lives here. But U.S. officials say Guatemalans don't qualify for asylum since the fighting that forced them to run is long over.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: While the military and guerillas were at war, Pablo and Julia Moran were university students in Guatemala. They remember the gunfire and watching close relatives and friends rounded up and killed. Then armed soldiers began checking on them at home.
Mr. PABLO MORAN: The soldiers say that Pablo Moran is a student in the university. He's a revolutionary.
DEL BARCO: They thought you were dangerous?
Mr. MORAN: Yeah, huh?
DEL BARCO: Though they were not politically active, the Morans were afraid of what could happen to them and their two small children. So in 1993 they fled to the U.S. Embassy and petitioned for asylum. Like other Guatemalans, they were granted work permits and allowed to enter the U.S. That was 14 years ago. Since then Moran has worked as a truck driver. He bought his family a home outside L.A. and even a timeshare in Lake Tahoe. Julia Moran says her two children earn good grades in school.
Ms. JULIA MORAN (Guatemalan): We came here because we wanted to be safe, and we were for 14 years since they were renewing our work permit every year. With thought everything was okay.
Mr. MORAN: We have 14 years in this country with a clean record. Everything is good.
DEL BARCO: But now, time maybe up for the Morans and many other Guatemalans who face deportation. After waiting for 14 years for a ruling on their asylum request, immigration officials are now telling the Moran's they're not eligible because conditions in Guatemala have changed. The war there has been over for more than a decade but the Morans say they are still dangers waiting for them back home.
Ms. MORAN: Immigration said how are you sure that they're going to do something to you when you go back? Well, we didn't want to wait for that. That's why we came here.
DEL BARCO: What do you think could happen if you go back?
Ms. MORAN: Be killed probably. We don't know how they work, but we don't want to take the chances over there.
DEL BARCO: Moran says they're scared of the military and of corrupt officials in Guatemala, and they're terrified of the kind of gang violence that left one of her brothers dead when he returned two years ago. But according to U.S. immigration law, asylum may only be granted if an individual can prove persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or a political opinion.
Joanna Ruppel is Deputy Chief of Asylum for Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ms. JOANNA RUPPEL (Deputy Chief of Asylum for Citizenship and Immigration Services): To be eligible for asylum a person has to show that he or she is a refugee. And that means that he has been persecuted in the past or has a well-founded fear of persecution in the future. Obviously, you look at what are the conditions in Guatemala now.
DEL BARCO: Repel says Guatemalans are no longer in need of international protection.
Ms. RUPPEL: Being afraid of crime, of gangs, of general corruption, that never has and still is not a ground for asylum under either U.S. law or international law. So somebody who fears they are going to be beaten or robbed when they go home, because there's general crime and lawlessness in their country, would not qualify as a refugee.
DEL BARCO: Ruppel says only recently have immigration officials started clearing a tremendous backlog of asylum petitions. That's why many Guatemalans are only now being interviewed. But sending those people back now is very dangerous, according to Byron Vasquez, Director of a Guatemalan cultural center in Los Angeles.
Mr. BYRON VASQUEZ (Director, Casa de la Cultura de Guatemala): We're talking about the Guatemalans who came to the United States victims of the civil war that the United States financed in Guatemala. The CIA came to Guatemala and recruited militarists and killed people, and now they're telling us you have to go back to your country. This is immoral; this having no sense of humans.
DEL BARCO: Lawyers from the Human Rights Project are now preparing a class action lawsuit on behalf of tens of thousands of Guatemalans facing deportation, like the Moran's 17-year-old daughter, Maria.
Ms. MARIA MORAN: This was our safety place and taking that away from us, it's scary. Like a lot of my family has been persecuted and I don't want that to happen to my mom and my dad, or my brother, or myself.
POGGIOLI: Next week, the Morans go before a deportation judge, who will decide their future in this country.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.