30 Years of Central American Immigration

By Cristina Moreno

Immigrant activists march in front of the White House in Washington on Dec. 30,2015 to protest upcoming raids against Central American children by the Department of Homeland Security. From http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/01/04/ice-raids-immigration-central-america/78265144/

2016 dawned with anxious anticipation as neighborhoods across the United States braced for impending immigration raids. The Department of Homeland Security specifically targeted Central American adults and children who arrived in the United States in 2014.1 Yet, the impacts of these raids rippled across citizen and immigrant communities. The raids amplified the national debate regarding the fate of recent arrivals from Central America, however, this is not the first time this nation has faced this question. Nearly 30 years ago, the United States deported recent arrivals from Central America back to countries in the throes of civil war. Looking back at this policy decision and its eventual reversal in 1990, which temporarily stayed the deportation of Central Americans, provides an answer to the moral dilemma of today.

Roughly 30 years ago, the citizens of El Salvador endured a bloody civil war and negotiated a dangerous reality by maximizing their opportunities for survival and success. One of these options included escaping to the United States. In 1980, at the onset of the civil war between the government and guerrilla forces, roughly 20,000 people in El Salvador died in war-related deaths.2 Throughout the 1980s, President Reagan refused to grant Extended Voluntary Departure to nationals from El Salvador in the United States.3 Extended Voluntary Departure or EVD was an executive act of prosecutorial discretion that would temporarily give low priority to deportations to certain countries. President Reagan’s refusal to grant EVD meant nationals from El Salvador could be forcibly removed back to the violent reality they had just attempted to evade. Meanwhile, asylum approval rates lagged. In 1984, 328 people from El Salvador were granted asylum, while over 13,000 applicants were denied.4 This created a precarious situation. Few legal avenues to safety prompted a wave of undocumented migration from El Salvador. These arrivals faced an uncertain fate given the Reagan administration’s choice to send nationals from El Salvador back to war.

In 1985, Representative John Joseph Moakley introduced H.R. 822 to temporarily stay the deportation of Salvadoran nationals due to the moral imperative demanded by extreme civil strife in El Salvador.5 He laid out the moral imperative clearly by saying, “each of us knows what is going on today in El Salvador… Right now we are sending people back to a war zone. It is wrong”.6 This bill pointed out the failures of the asylum process in El Salvador and the necessity of considering migrants from El Salvador as war refugees. This bill which became known as the Moakley-DeConcini bill never passed.7 Activists and church leaders continued to forge coalitions in recognition not only of the moral imperative to support refugees fighting for their lives, but also in recognition of the benefits of welcoming refugees to the United States. Nationals from El Salvador bravely shared their stories inspiring national action. These coalitions recognized the talents, skills, and hard work brought by refugees from El Salvador and the ways in which refugees fuel the nation with their vigor and determination. In 1990, Representative Moakley issued a report that outlined the atrocities ordered by government forces on their own people arguing once again for the United States to recognize the extreme civil strife that propelled the recent arrivals to journey north.8


Rep. John Moakley holding the 1990 report on the murder of Jesuit priests in El Salvador (AP photo). From http://radioboston.wbur.org/2013/07/01/joe-moakley-courthouse

In response to this pressure and after a consensus formed in Congress, President George H.W. Bush signed the 1990 Immigration Act.9 This law temporarily granted Salvadoran nationals relief through Temporary Protected Status. Receiving Temporary Protected Status or TPS was not a path to citizenship, neither was it a path to any kind of legal stay in the United States. It was simply a temporary stay from deportation and a work permit to be renewed every two years.  Since then countries facing natural disasters and war have qualified for TPS, most notably, Honduras, Haiti, Somalia, and Sudan.10 As a result of this program, Salvadorans have become the third-largest Latino group in the United States, shared their talents and labor, and continued to rebuild their country back home.

The conditions in the Northern Triangle today echo the conditions faced in these countries nearly 30 years ago. Representative Moakley’s description of an El Salvador where “death and destruction continue to be a fact of life” is now applicable again not only to El Salvador, but also to Honduras.11 In El Salvador and Honduras, the number of homicides now approximate the number of war-related deaths witnessed at the end of the civil war in El Salvador.12 Organized criminal forces pose a significant disruption to civic life. This threat was clear and dramatically visible in July of 2015 in El Salvador when Mara 18 violently interfered with public transportation and effectively hampering bus routes.13 The extreme civil strife has once again become a daily reality in Central America. These urgent conditions warrant deeper reflection and consideration of our nation’s treatment towards Central Americans who come to the United States seeking safety.

President Obama’s response towards new arrivals from Central America mimics that of President Reagan. By increasing immigration raids, newly arrived Central Americans face deportation and in many cases a high probability of death. The threat to civilians in the Northern Triangle is different than it was 31 years ago, but the result is the same, a daily negotiation with extortion, disappearances, fear, and death. The conditions are no secret, neither were they secret in 1985.

In 1990, the United States eventually acknowledged the threat faced by Central Americans and responded by instituting Temporary Protected Status. This program invested in communities and ultimately reflected the strength of the democratic process in the United States. Our nation’s leaders once recognized the moral, social, and economic imperative to halt the deportations of newly arrived Central Americans whose countries burned from civil violence. Can our leaders do the same now?


1. “Statement by Secretary Jeh C. Johnson on Southwest Border Security | Homeland Security,” accessed February 22, 2016, https://www.dhs.gov/news/2016/01/04/statement-secretary-jeh-c-johnson-southwest-border-security.

2. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9.

3. “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era,” Migrationpolicy.org, April 1, 2006, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era.

4. “Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law on the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives Ninety-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 822: Temporary Suspension of Deportations for Nationals of Certain Countries,” November 7, 1985, http://congressional.proquest.com/congressional/result/congressional/pqpdocumentview?accountid=15172&groupid=94346&pgId=67a09d97-dd0e-4950-b13e-22fbd4fed1c4&rsId=1526D18567C.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7.Austin Sarat and Stuart A. Scheingold, Cause Lawyers and Social Movements (Stanford University Press, 2006), 106.

8. Clark, Fred, “Fred [Clark?]’s notes providing an overview of John Joseph Moakley’s involvement in El Salvador,” Moakley Archive & Institute, accessed February 26, 2016,https://moakleyarchive.omeka.net/items/show/8894.

9. Ibid.

2. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9.

10.“Temporary Protected Status in the United States.”

11.“Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law on the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives Ninety-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 822: Temporary Suspension of Deportations for Nationals of Certain Countries.”

12.“Intentional Homicides (per 100,000 People) | Data | Table,” accessed February 22, 2016, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/VC.IHR.PSRC.P5?page=5; Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador.

13. Elahe Izadi, “Driving a Bus Is a ‘death Sentence’ in El Salvador’s Capital City,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/31/driving-a-bus-is-a-death-sentence-in-el-salvadors-capital-city/.

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