No Sanctuary

Long delays in processing asylum claims leave Guatemalans in a bind

When he was 16, Cesar Ramirez was eating in a café in rural Guatemala when guerrillas threw a hand grenade into the restaurant in an attempt to kill the town's mayor. Ramirez recalls running from the explosion, bleeding from shrapnel wounds to his legs, hip and arm. Two people inside the café were killed.

The year was 1982, and the Central American country was in the throes of civil war. The sitting president was a general who'd taken power in a coup and was later accused of committing genocide against thousands of Mayan peasants.

Ramirez and his mother left their home in the capital to seek sanctuary in Texas, where one of his brothers already lived.

Now, after almost 25 years in the United States, the 40-year-old Spanish-language DJ who has spent more than 10 years in Dallas is likely to be ordered deported. Immigration officials in January recommended his asylum claim be denied, and he'll soon go before an immigration judge. The U.S. government has recently rejected thousands of Guatemalan asylum claims that had been pending for years, saying that since the country's civil war ended a decade ago, fears of persecution are no longer justified.

But civil rights groups, arguing that applicants aren't to blame for long paperwork processing delays, are challenging the orders.

"There are families who are losing their homes, losing their jobs—it's a terrible drama," says Byron Vasquez, director of the Los Angeles-based advocacy group Casa de la Cultura de Guatemala, which is preparing a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security demanding legal residency for Guatemalans who applied for asylum between 1990 and 1998. The organization has also filed a lawsuit in the Inter-American Human Rights Court against the Guatemalan government, charging that it should have engaged in talks with the United States to settle the refugees.

"The U.S. and Guatemala should have thought about what they were going to do with these refugees," Vasquez says. "All those who went to Canada and Mexico are citizens by now. The U.S. hasn't helped them, and the U.S. was the one backing the war." He's referring to the American support of successive military regimes responsible for kidnappings, torture and civilian massacres, involvement for which President Bill Clinton apologized.

Around 1 million people fled Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which pitted leftist guerrillas against government forces and ended in 1996. Advocacy groups estimate there are some 200,000 Guatemalans with pending asylum claims nationwide, though the number is hard to verify because the government didn't begin keeping records on them until 1995. This year 848 have been denied asylum or referred to an immigration judge, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and 3,495 last year, up from 1,785 in 2005. Since special laws passed in the '90s made it easier for Guatemalans to get residency if they arrived before 1990, most of the people sent back had arrived after that date.

Ramirez arrived well before the cut-off for those special programs, but he and his lawyer, Angel Cruz, say he was rejected because in 1988, after overstaying his temporary visa, he was ordered deported and didn't leave. He says he first applied for asylum in the early '90s but didn't get an immigration hearing until recently. He missed the first hearing—he says he didn't receive the mailed notice for it—and finally made his case to local immigration officials in January. In a letter dated January 22, Asylum Office Director Marie Hummert explained the recommendation that his application be denied.

"An asylum-seeker must show actual past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion," the letter read. "The events you described do not constitute past persecution...The attack was directed at the mayor and you appear to have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Ramirez is a DJ for Radio Jubileo, a Christian radio program in Spanish, as well as a former reporter for Univision. He's worked in radio since he was a teenager and testified that he'd received threatening phone calls while working as a journalist in Guatemala City (his older brother was a broadcaster and found him a radio job despite his youth). But the government letter said those threats "lacked detail and a motive."

Ramirez says he's afraid to return to Guatemala, especially as a member of the media. "The situation in Guatemala hasn't really changed," Ramirez says. "I'm a reporter—I can't stay quiet when I see injustice, and in Guatemala you can't speak freely without putting yourself in danger."

While political persecution isn't nearly as rampant in Guatemala now as it was 20 years ago, threats against human rights workers and journalists are common. Last fall, the Inter-American Press Association demanded investigations into a number of attacks, including the shooting of radio reporter Eduardo Heriberto Mass Bol, who was killed while driving home from a birthday party. The month before Bol's death, the host of a political radio show was shot in the face while jogging in the capital, and four newspaper reporters in the colonial town of Antigua reported that they'd received threats after covering official corruption. In 2003, the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed outrage when four reporters for Guatemala's largest daily were abducted and held for two days by former paramilitary members with ties to General Efrain Rios Montt, the dictator in power when Ramirez fled to Texas.

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