WASHINGTON – El Salvadorans living in Maryland could face a new obstacle to reuniting with family members under an immigration reform bill pending in the U.S. Senate.
The bill is likely to do away with an injunction ensuring that El Salvadorans caught entering the country illegally have the chance to apply for asylum.
That could mean bad news for Maryland’s Salvadoran population, which the U.S. Census Bureau reported at more than 75,000 in 2005 — a greater number in the state than from any other country.
“We are tearing up families and we are depriving people of human rights and due process, which is the essence of the American system,” said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, a native Salvadoran who has been living in the United States off and on since 1947.
Salvadorans living in the country won’t face increased risk of deportation if the injunction is overturned, but they will find it more difficult to reunite with their families, said Salvadoran Associated of Maryland President Luis Felipe Romero.
“Salvadorans in Maryland, they’re going to keep sending the money and trying to get their relatives, regardless of what’s going to happen,” said Romero, who emigrated from El Salvador in 1978. “If they get sent back, they’re going to keep trying.”
The bill in question is the Immigration Law Enforcement Act of 2006. It would render any injunctions protecting illegal immigrants from deportation ineffective 10 days after it becomes law. That includes the injunction issued 18 years ago in the midst of a Salvadoran civil war to stop immigration officials from depriving Salvadoran immigrants of lawyers and asylum trials. That legal ruling is called the “Orantes injunction” after a 1988 federal district court case out of California called Orantes-Hernandez v. Gonzalez.
The bill, HR 6095, passed the House on Sept. 21 with Maryland’s two Republican representatives voting for it and its six Democrats opposing it.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, defended his vote, saying the Orantes injunction is no longer necessary because the civil war that prompted it has been over since 1992.
“Those people should no longer be at any increased risk as compared to any other immigrants,” Bartlett said. “The appeal was that, ‘Gee, if you send me home, they’re going to kill me,'” and that was a very legitimate concern.”
Its fate in the Senate is uncertain. Sen. Paul Sarbanes declined to comment on the measure before it reaches the floor and Sen. Barbara Mikulski could not be reached.
Salvadorans still need protection, said National Immigration Law Center Executive Director Linton Joaquin, who helped win the injunction in 1988 and is now fighting to keep it. Salvadoran immigrants come to the U.S. seeking asylum from gang persecution, domestic violence and a political climate that remains precarious, he said.
The same could be said for immigrants from other countries who are not protected by such an injunction, Joaquin conceded.
“The issue is whether that is a reason to eliminate an injunction protecting rights that are still needed,” Joaquin said. “It’s much more a reason for extending those protections to other nationalities, but that would have to be another case.”
The Department of Homeland Security is challenging the Orantes injunction in federal District Court in Los Angeles. The court could uphold the injunction if it acts within 10 days of the immigration bill’s approval.
In a statement released Sept. 21, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff commended the House of Representatives’ vote and said the Orantes injunction impeded the current policy of “expedited removal,” under which non-Mexican immigrants caught entering the country illegally are returned without a hearing unless they claim asylum.
“It ties our hands, and it jeopardizes our ability to sustain last month’s achievement of ending the practice of ‘catch and release,'” Chertoff said of the Orantes injunction. Under “catch and release,” detained illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico were given a court notice and released back into the U.S. because there was not enough detention space to hold them.
The threat to the Orantes injunction is another contributor to the climate of fear Salvadorans are living in, said Gutierrez, who was brought to tears as she contrasted her arrival to the U.S. as a diplomat’s daughter with the experiences of today’s immigrants.
“I came under the best of circumstances,” she said. “I had every support and privilege that one could have, and now when I see so many of my countrymen having to fight so much for their daily existence, it’s just so unfair. It’s just not humanely fair.”
One of several immigration reform proposals working its way through Congress, the Immigration Law Enforcement Act also asks the U.S. Attorney General to adopt uniform guidelines for prosecuting smuggling offenses and increases the number of federal attorneys to prosecute such cases. The bill also asserts that local and state officials can help enforce national immigration laws.