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stephen macekura

“For Fear of Persecution”: Displaced

Salvadorans and U.S. Refugee Policy in
the 1980s

From its beginnings in 1979 to its negotiated peace settlement in 1992, the
Salvadoran civil war was one of the most violent and protracted conflicts in
the world. Almost immediately, the war transformed from a vicious local
struggle to a key episode in the Cold War. Although American journalists,
politicians, and activists focused heavily on the numerous atrocities com-
mitted by both leftist guerrillas and government-sponsored right-wing para-
militaries, caught amid the chaos and seemingly endless violence were the
hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans displaced from their homes. In the
1980s, more than five hundred thousand of these displaced persons gradually
moved northward, first into Mexico and ultimately toward the United States
border. This migration en masse of Salvadorans sparked an intensely politi-
cized debate over U.S. refugee policy and consequently helped to shape the
legal contours and political culture surrounding immigration.
The key to understanding the Salvadoran refugee crisis in the United
States lies in two areas: the Carter administration’s reconfiguration of refugee
policy in 1980 and the Reagan administration’s subsequent implementation
of the new law. Throughout most of the Cold War, the ideological orientation
of one’s nation of origin largely determined who qualified as a refugee. In

The author wishes to thank Alon Confino, Melvyn Leffler, Kelly Peterman, James Allison,
Brent Cebul, and the anonymous reviewers of the Journal of Policy History for their
advice in the preparation of this article.
the journal of policy history, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2011.
© Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2011
358 | “For Fear of Persecution”

general, federal law privileged individuals fleeing communist governments in

Eastern Europe.1 Yet a series of international refugee crises in the late 1970s
and an emerging human rights ethos, embodied in President Carter, led to
policy changes that reflected both new geopolitical circumstances and new
conceptions of human rights and foreign affairs. The Carter administration
and its allies in Congress crafted a revised version of refugee law, the 1980
Refugee Act.2 The new policy eliminated nationality as a qualification for
refugee status and in its place proposed to identify refugees individually. 3
Accordingly, under the new law displaced Salvadorans, like all potential
refugees, would be reviewed on an individual, case-by-case basis.
Yet this legal change rendered displaced Salvadorans without recourse
for claiming refugee status as a national group in the United States. For
throughout much of the 1980s, the Reagan administration publicly classified
Salvadoran refugee claimants as “economic migrants” seeking personal gain,
not political safe-haven. Institutional rules established in the act afforded the
State Department the right to adjudicate the validity of refugee claims, which
gave the executive branch penultimate power over refugee policy. Thus as war
waged on, the Reagan administration, a constant supporter of the Salvadoran
government, legally withheld refugee status from fleeing Salvadorans. Even as
the hundreds of thousands of displaced Salvadorans trudged northward in
1983 and the “economic immigrant” argument became untenable, the Reagan
administration maintained its exclusionary stance by reframing refugee
questions around a new imperative: winning the war in El Salvador. Pro-
viding a stable and secure nation, the administration argued, was the best
path toward aiding displaced Salvadorans. The unintended legal conse-
quences of the 1980 act, then, allowed foreign policy concerns, the search for
a stable, noncommunist El Salvador, to dictate an exclusionary refugee policy.
Indeed, only by granting a special executive mandate called Extended
Voluntary Departure (EVD) could all forcibly displaced Salvadorans receive
universal amnesty in the United States. The 1980 law and its subsequent
implementation resigned displaced Salvadorans to a precarious legal position
throughout the entire decade. The Salvadorans’ plight generated fierce political
debates as well. A movement of nongovernmental supporters, later dubbed
the Sanctuary Movement, offered safe haven for refugees and lobbied
Congress for EVD while a vitriolic anti-immigration, antirefugee coalition
protested the Salvadoran presence in nativist terms and opposed any resolu-
tion providing sanctuary for the displaced in the United States. Only through
a series of contingent developments in American immigration law and alter-
ations in the Reagan administration’s tactics for achieving victory in El Salvador
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at the end of the Cold War did displaced Salvadorans receive legal protection
in the United States.
Recently historians have begun to examine the relationship between
American foreign policy and domestic immigration and refugee policy.
A growing body of scholarly work looks at American refugee policy in the
1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with particular focus on Eastern European and Indo-
chinese refugees.4 Historians of immigration policy have highlighted impor-
tant developments over the course of the 1970s and 1980s with regard to
immigration from Central America, but these scholars have as of yet neglected
to fully contextualize domestic political developments within broader dis-
courses of forced migrations or American foreign policy.5 Only very recently
has any historian attempted to explore the systematic interactions between
refugee policy, foreign-policy imperatives, and domestic political and cul-
tural considerations.6 On the Salvadoran crisis, much of the historiography
focuses on the Reagan administration’s stringent anticommunism, and not
on the interpretations and implementations of the 1980 Act.7 This article adds
to this emerging scholarly intersection of American foreign, refugee, and
immigration policy by using the Salvadoran refugee crisis of the 1980s to
elucidate how foreign policy influences refugee policy and how legal struc-
tures both enable and constrict the ability of refugees to seek sanctuary.

humans rights and refugees: the 1980 refugee act

In a speech commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the United Nations
Declaration of Human Rights, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed that he
“sought to rekindle the beacon of human rights in American foreign policy.”
Governments, Carter claimed, had a special responsibility to protect their
citizenry. Every government derived its legitimacy from its capacity to uphold
the human rights of all its citizens, including refugees. “Refugees are the
living, homeless casualties of one very important failure on the part of
the world to live by the principles of peace and human rights,” Carter said.
“To help these refugees is a simple human duty. As Americans, as a people
made up largely of the descendants of refugees, we feel that duty with special
In his speech and many times afterward, Carter defined refugee issues in
terms of human rights. His policies reflected this inclination. Backed by the
administration’s most fervent advocates of human rights, assistant Secretary
of State for Human Rights Patricia Derian and Ambassador to the United
Nations Andrew Young, the Carter administration worked in close concert
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with liberal Democratic senator Edward Kennedy to reform existing refugee

law. Specifically, the administration sought to create a new legal definition
that reflected the United Nations’ individualistic definition of a refugee, with-
out regard to specific national origin.9 After a two-year battle in Congress, the
Carter administration succeeded in reforming refugee policy in the 1980
Refugee Act.10
This new policy offered a number of key legal and institutional innova-
tions, but two in particular warrant close attention. First, the document for-
mally defined a refugee as “any person who is outside any country of such
person’s nationality, or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is out-
side any country in which such person habitually resided, and who is unable
or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself
to the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded
fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a
particular social, or political opinion.”11 Since the 1950s, federal law had
defined a refugee in terms of national origin. Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) and State Department officials did not confer refugee status
necessarily on a case-by-case basis; rather, only persons leaving certain coun-
tries deemed to be sufficiently dangerous could receive “refugee” status and
hence protection in the United States. Also, the law mandated that the
attorney general create procedures for foreign nationals living within the
United States to apply for “asylum” status in the midst of refugee crisis, a legal
category that had previously been managed in an ad hoc fashion.12 The old
formulation privileged above all else persons from fleeing communist
governments in Eastern Europe.13 The new definition of 1980, borrowing
language from the United Nations, eliminated the national-origin qualifica-
tion. The 1980 law placed the locus of legal rights within the individual, not
upon a group.
Second, the 1980 act also required the State Department to provide over-
sight and advice to the INS regarding the merits of each individual applica-
tion. Often, the INS deferred to the State Department, as numerous cases,
such as Haitian Refugee Center vs. Civiletti, ruled that the INS was incapable
of making an informed decision on the international context for immigration
in a particular case.14 To supplant the INS, the State Department advisory
committee therefore assumed the position of expert to interpret the meaning
of the “fear of persecution” clause in particular cases. The law conferred upon
the department legal power in determining the validity of an applicant’s claim
for refugee protection. The inclusion of this advisory stipulation reinforced
significant institutional linkages between the bureaucratic bodies governing
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domestic immigration and the making of foreign policy. The task of inter-
preting the meaning of “fear of persecution” thereby fell squarely on the
shoulders of officials in the State Department. From its start, the law thus
opened a set of tensions that would soon be put to the test.
The first massive flow of refugees came from Nicaragua amid intensi-
fying conflict within the country in the late 1970s. In response, in the summer
of 1980 the Carter administration chose to offer Extended Voluntary Depar-
ture (EVD) to more than three thousand Nicaraguan refugees (out of an esti-
mated 10,000–20,000 who entered the country the previous year).15 EVD is a
legal category identified in the Immigration and Nationality Act that confers
special legal power on the attorney general to permit all persons from a given
nation to remain in the United States, so as long as the attorney general agrees
that such people would be physically endangered if they were to return to
their home nation. EVD, in short, provides temporary legal protection for all
foreign nationals who exist outside the bounds of national citizenship law.
The Carter administration granted EVD to all Nicaraguans residing in the
United States on July 3, reiterated on August 29, for a period of fifteenth
months, just as the Sandinista Revolution crested in Nicaragua. This protec-
tion came as Carter’s efforts to negotiate a settlement between the Somoza
regime and the Sandinistas foundered. Under the leadership by Zbigniew
Brzezinski, the administration adopted a hard-line position vis-à-vis the
Sandinistas.16 In this context, extending EVD to Nicaraguans reflected the
administration’s political objectives of undermining the Sandinistas. EVD
and refugee policy were both tools of foreign policy.
This politicization of EVD was also apparent in American policy vis-
à-vis El Salvador. Like Nicaragua, El Salvador was in the midst of a burgeoning
conflict, and the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 coincided with a rapid
escalation of violence in El Salvador. Following the consolidation of the
multiple guerrilla groups into a single political entity, the FMLN, and the
reemergence and rapid dispersal of repressive paramilitary groups, wide-
spread violence ensued. Massive emigration and forced migrations from El
Salvador soon followed. Although violence escalated throughout 1979 and
1980 and thousands of Salvadorans applied for refugee status and others
pressed for EVD, the Carter administration did not offer EVD and deported
twelve thousand Salvadorans back to El Salvador in 1980 alone.17 Instead,
it scrambled to put together a $5.7 million military aid package to the Salva-
doran government, in the hopes of preventing another Nicaragua.18 With the
United States funding the government in El Salvador and officials claiming
that the government was doing no wrong in waging war against guerrillas in
362 | “For Fear of Persecution”

the countryside, the administration made no mention of a looming refugee

crisis and instead focused on the displaced Nicaraguans.

dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s”: the reagan administration

and refugee policy
The intensifying conflicts in Central America and the burgeoning refugee
crises became a focal point of the 1980 presidential election in the United
States. Republican candidate Ronald Reagan made confrontation with per-
ceived communist influence in El Salvador a hallmark of his foreign policy
platform. “Must we let Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador all become additional
‘Cubas,’ new outposts for Soviet combat brigades?” he asked rhetorically on
the eve of the Illinois Primary in March.19 Reagan posited that the Cubans
and Soviets had facilitated the civil war in El Salvador. Speaking before the
Veterans of Foreign Wars in Chicago on August 18, 1980, Reagan declared
that “Soviet-inspired trouble” in the form of “Cuban-trained guerrilla bands”
in El Salvador threatened American security.20 Throughout the fall campaign,
he lambasted the Carter administration for diplomatic weakness in Central
America. He inveighed against Carter’s approval of an economic aid package
to Nicaragua and El Salvador in early September as weak and ineffective.21
Reagan’s attacks on Central American policy raised awareness about the
Salvadoran issue leading up to the election, which he won in a landslide.
As Reagan began to govern in the early months of 1981, the war in El
Salvador intensified and tens of thousands of Salvadoran refugees started to
flee the country. In March 1981, INS officials reported a surge in Salvadoran
detainees along the Mexican border. Many of these detainees offered tragic
stories about being coerced from their homes, explaining that they found no
choice but to flee from the threat of increasing civil strife, which followed the
reports of a number of a brutal “Christmas murders” by the armed forces
around the holiday.22 According to the refugee law, since the State Depart-
ment had not designated El Salvador as dangerous or violent enough to
warrant conferring temporary refuge status upon its expatriated aliens, the INS
deported thousands of Salvadorans back to their homes.23 The vague “fear of
persecution” phrase had been invoked to justify keeping Salvadorans out.
The increase in immigration coincided with the Reagan’s administration
formal adoption of a hard-lined approach to El Salvador. Although the
Reagan administration spoke with more bellicose rhetoric and the Carter
administration had emphasized human rights, the policies of the administra-
tions demonstrated more continuity than change. On February 23, 1981, the
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State Department, now under the direction of Alexander Haig Jr., issued a
“White Paper” on communist influence in El Salvador. Presented to the
public by the new Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs,
Thomas O. Enders, who had previously been the State Department’s charge
d’affairs to Phnom Penh in the early 1970s, the White Paper declared that
communist forces, directed under tutelary supervision by Cuba, had besieged
the government of El Salvador. The White Paper argued that the United States
should increase military aid to the Salvadoran government to combat this
communist subversion.24 The Paper built upon an initial $5.7 million aid
package passed in the last year of the Carter administration. It placed El
Salvador within the framework of a broader regional strategy premised on
countering communist insurgencies throughout Central America. The policy
sought to defend perceived threats to American security interests in the
Western hemisphere and to promote values more compatible with the
Reagan’s administration’s ideological platform. In this sense, it confirmed
the rising importance within the administration’s overall foreign policy of
revising what they called the Carter administration’s weakness and over-
coming the “Vietnam syndrome,” which made foreign interventions seem
undesirable and less direct means, such as military aid, preferable. The Paper
also brought increased attention to the rapidly warming Cold War ideological
struggle in Central America, a region that Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambas-
sador to the United Nations, called “the most important place in the world for
the United States.”25
Yet the Paper also stood in direct contrast to other reports on El Salvador,
including a congressional fact-finding mission from January 1981. The mis-
sion had determined that U.S. military aid was bypassing the Salvadoran gov-
ernment altogether, moving directly to members of the armed forces and
paramilitary groups committing massacres in the countryside, which stood
inimical to the United States’ human rights proclamations.26 Nonetheless, the
White Paper became the official policy statement for the administration. In
so doing, the declaration had three main effects: it formally defined the termi-
nology of the Salvadoran civil war, cast as a battle of communist guerrillas
versus a center-right liberal government; it connected the Salvadoran guer-
rillas to a global communist network, thereby de-localizing the conflict; and
finally, it formally linked the United States to the Salvadoran government
through military aid.27
While implementing the White Paper, the Reagan administration operated
in a political climate hostile to Latin American immigration and refugees
as a whole. In the 1970s, a group priding themselves as “white ethnics” had
364 | “For Fear of Persecution”

become a powerful element in American politics (and the Reagan’s coalition

of political support). They criticized racial activism and immigration while
promoting a particular segment of white culture. Bolstered in popular culture
by television shows celebrating working-class whiteness such as All in the
Family and framed by political manifestos such as Michael Novak’s The Rise
of the Unmeltable Ethnics, the white ethnic movement suffused national anti-
immigrant, antirefugee sentiment with a particular definition of American
identity bound to a specifically “white” cultural heritage.28
Although not a leader of the white ethnic movement, one influential
figure who helped make normative definitions of “American”—who could be
included legally and assimilated culturally—an issue in national immigration
politics was Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Helms had publicly responded to
three highly publicized incidents, the Indochinese refugee crisis of the 1970s,
the prolonged Haitian refugee crisis of the 1970s, and the Mariel boatlift
of 1980, that brought to the fore of domestic politics issues of increased
nonwhite immigration and refugee assimilation.29 While many leaders in
Congress and the wider population at large acknowledged the humanitarian
dimensions of these crises, vocal opponents of wide-scale refugee acceptance
such as Helms questioned the cultural and social consequences of admit-
tance. Helms claimed in response to the Indochinese refugee problem that
the United States had “experienced more and more problems as a result of the
melting-pot theory.” He explained that “there is the feeling that the traditions
of our ethnic groups are being undermined, as well as the sense of identity
and community. . . .There is the widespread concern over the adaptability of
such a group to American values. . . .There is the language question.”30 Helms
would later use these arguments against Salvadoran refugees.
In the summer of 1981, as violence increased throughout El Salvador,
thousands of refugees began moving northward, through war-torn Guate-
mala, through Mexico, and into the United States. Finding residence through
kin networks, mostly in Southern California, many Salvadorans began
employing nonstate actors to make claims to the federal government for
refugee or asylum status. As more and more Salvadorans entered the country,
the lines between “refugee” and “asylum” status became blurred, and many
groups began filing asylum petitions for Salvadorans now residing in the
United States. Aided by organizations such as the National Council of
Churches, the United States Catholic Conference, and the American Civil
Liberties Union, Salvadorans began to file requests to the State Department
asking for refugee status, a plea that soon extended to a series of petitions and
letters to Congress, the State Department, and the White House.31 Moreover,
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American officials at the border increasingly detained and deported the

displaced Salvadorans. The State Department did not include Salvadorans on
the list of countries with refugee exemption, which permitted the INS to
deport detained Salvadoran migrants at unprecedented rates. In August 1981,
an official with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)
stated that 305,000 Salvadorans had either fled violence or had been coerced
from their homes during the previous year, with many entering the United
States illegally. Of those captured by the INS, many were deported. The total
number of Salvadoran deportations for FY1981 was 10,473; with the financial
cost of each individual deportation averaging above $300, the total amounted
to over $3 million in U.S. taxpayer money.32
Despite the staggering number of refugees captured at border crossings,
the Reagan administration continuously defined Salvadoran refugees as
“economic” migrants. In January 1982, a Senate subcommittee on immigra-
tion reform discussed the potential of revising immigration law to respond
more flexibly to the recent influx in Central American immigrants.33 Central
to these hearings was the wording of the 1980 Refugee Act, and, in particular,
whether El Salvador constituted a situation dire enough to warrant extension
of refugee rights to detained aliens. The Reagan administration, throughout
the early 1980s, argued that the Salvadoran government, under the leadership
of José Napoleón Duarte, was continually improving its human rights record,
a caveat that Congress had installed for the continuation of military aid.34
Accordingly, since the continuing military aid implied ongoing progress
within El Salvador, no major reforms passed regarding the status of Salva-
doran migrants, and opponents in Congress, such as Senator Edward
Kennedy, could find no legal recourse for deeming as “political refugees” the
displaced Salvadorans.
The administration did not waver on this point. When asked by a
reporter in the summer of 1981 about whether Salvadorans qualified as
“economic” refugees seeking personal gain or “political” refugees with a legiti-
mate “fear of persecution” in their home country, Secretary of State Alexander
Haig replied, “You’ve asked me to dot some ‘i’s’ and cross some ‘t’s’ that would
not be appropriate.”35 Similarly, the State Department explained in early 1982 to
worried UN officials that the Salvadorans entering the United States were
“economic refugees” and hence beyond the legal bounds for federal protection.36
The ability of the administration to contort the phrase “fear of persecution”
toward political ends allowed officials to create a legally sound policy of exclusion.
Yet evidence compiled by other organizations suggested that financial
gain was far from the minds of most Salvadorans. An immigration attorney
366 | “For Fear of Persecution”

who had worked on refugee and asylum cases in the late 1970s and early 1980s
recalled, “We started to file asylum applications [for Salvadorans, and] we
started to see that they were being denied. Even though these cases were
stronger than anything I had ever seen from any country. . . . In El Salvador at
that point in time the government was, you know, on a terror campaign. . . .
They would go and wipe out a village and then cut off people’s heads and then
put them on stakes so that people would see them and be terrorized.”37
A report from an autumn 1981 investigation performed by the UNHCR,
leaked to the Washington Post in early January 1982, offered similar conclu-
sions. The report stated that the United States had followed a “systematic
practice” of deporting nearly all displaced Salvadorans back to their home
country regardless of the merits of their refugee claims, even though the
totals were below the annual quota of fifty thousand set by the 1980 act. The
UNHCR report also claimed that the United States was in violation of a
number of UN statutes on refugee treatment. A lawyer working on behalf of
Salvadoran refugee and asylum claimants stated that the United States’
actions were entirely political in nature, arguing that the Salvadorans migrants
were “fleeing U.S. bombs and bullets” and they were “refugees spawned by
U.S. foreign policy.” Ted Kennedy, a ranking member of the Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy, referred to the report as
“sad, and without precedent.”38
Still, the Reagan administration remained firm in its objection to
offering refugee status to Salvadorans. For FY1982, the State Department
appropriated only $6 million to service all of Latin America’s refugees,
compared to $107 million for Africa and $50 million for Indochina alone. 39
Indeed, the INS arrested over more than eight hundred thousand individ-
uals on the Mexican border in 1982, a high since the 1954 Operation Wetback,
and an official, though he did not know exact nationality breakdowns,
claimed that Salvadorans accounted for a “significant number” of the
Domestic political culture reinforced the perception of Salvadoran
refugees as self-interested economic migrants and linked their arrival in the
United States to widespread xenophobia and questions of cultural assimila-
tion. Although a 1984 CBS News Poll revealed that only 25 percent of Ameri-
cans could identify which faction the United States supported in El Salvador,
public political culture remained highly charged with anti-immigrant
rhetoric.41 Indeed, polls in the summer of 1984 showed that more than half of
respondents believed too many Central and Latin Americans were being
allowed in the country, and a 1985 poll held that a plurality of respondents did
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not believe preferences should be given to migrants fleeing their countries for
“political reasons.”42
Jesse Helms took the lead in raising the alarm about refugees. Defending
a more militant, aggressive policy of anticommunism in Nicaragua and El
Salvador, Helms warned that “if Central America falls, we’re going to have 10,
15, 20 million refugees flooding across our borders who do not speak English
and do not have jobs.”43 Helms tied cultural concerns to socioeconomic ste-
reotypes to engender a fear that future refugees could not be assimilated into
the nation and would drain the country’s economy. In this line of reasoning,
the only way to aid the refugees themselves was to intensify pressure on their
home country, which made a more muscular, anticommunist foreign policy
the solvent for potential immigration problems. The Reagan administration
would soon echo Helms’s logic.
Indeed, as reports continued to surface that Salvadoran refugees num-
bered in the hundreds of thousands, the administration subtly and gradually
shifted its antirefugee message away from the economic argument toward
one of priorities—helping to stabilize El Salvador above all else. “People do
not flee free, prosperous countries,” Assistant Secretary of State for Human
Rights Elliott Abrams told the Tiger Bay Club in Florida in the summer of
1982. “The largest refugee flows of recent years have come from . . . where,
quite simply, people are fleeing communism.” He continued, “I am always
amazed when people come to me to voice their concern about refugees from
El Salvador, yet who oppose the Administration’s effort to avoid enlargement
of that refugee problem by giving El Salvador the aid it needs to defeat Com-
munist-led guerrillas.”44 Abrams described a clear dichotomy: free countries
and communist countries, with refugees only logically emerging from the
latter. In this calculus, only communist countries could produce refugees. El
Salvador’s displaced persons deserved aid not upon their arrival at America’s
borders, but rather, the antiguerrilla forces deserved aid to bolster the war
effort. Abrams hence defined the relationship between foreign policy prior-
ities and immigration, arguing that only by resolving the former could the
administration redress the latter.
Reagan himself made clear this new line of argument for alleviating the
Salvadoran situation through increasing aid to El Salvador. In a remarkable
speech before a special joint session of Congress in April 1983, Reagan called
for more American military officials in the country and a rise in funding for
the Salvadoran government. He roundly denounced the guerrilla forces,
which he cited as the sole perpetrators of violence in the country. The presi-
dent also applauded the actions of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran battalions,
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skirting any question of human rights abuses committed by the armed forces.
But most ironically, he ended by posing a series of rhetorical questions: “Are
democracies required to remain passive while threats to their security and
prosperity accumulate? . . . Must we wait while Central Americans are driven
from their homes, like the more than four million who have sought refuge out
of Afghanistan or the 1½ million who have fled Indochina or the more than
one million Cubans who have fled Castro’s Caribbean utopia? Must we, by
default, leave the people of El Salvador no choice but to flee their homes,
creating another tragic human exodus?”45
The speech emphasized Reagan’s continued commitment to the Salva-
doran war effort. Soon after the speech, Reagan appointed Henry Kissinger to
chair a commission to comment on the administration’s Central American
policy. The Kissinger Commission ultimately argued for a similar method of
mixing military and economic aid to El Salvador as long as the administra-
tion deemed the human rights situation as constantly improving.46 By 1983,
then, the focus of all American aid to Salvador would be on fighting the civil
war to an end. The administration’s policy vis-à-vis Salvadorans remained the
same, but the argument for doing so had now expanded. Not only did the
Reagan administration classify Salvadoran migrants as “economic” in moti-
vation, but Reagan stated that funding the war effort in El Salvador was the
key method for solving refugee issues. In short, the administration articulated
a vision for aiding refugees that excluded the refugees themselves. This line of
reasoning would dictate the Reagan administration’s policies for the next
three years.

congress fights back: the sanctuary movement, joseph

moakley, and evd
As the Reagan administration maintained its position on Salvadoran refugees
in 1983, a movement for federal protection for Salvadorans began to strengthen
in Washington. In April 1983, Massachusetts Democratic congressman Joseph
Moakley sent a letter with the backing of eighty-eight other members of the
House to Secretary of State Haig urging the State Department to offer
Extended Voluntary Departure status for all Salvadorans, in the same manner
that Carter had done for Nicaraguans. EVD would suspend deportations and
allow Salvadorans, defined as a national group, to remain in the country for a
set length of time until Congress deemed the situation in El Salvador safe
enough for return. Senator Ted Kennedy first proposed a congressional
action on EVD for Salvadorans in early 1981, following Carter’s declaration of
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EVD for Nicaraguans, but the Reagan administration roundly repudiated

Kennedy’s claims. No congressional bill passed, nor did any initial support
mobilize, and efforts at reform faced staunch resistance from both the State
Department and congressional foes like Senator Helms. When Moakley rein-
troduced the EVD question in 1983, he crafted a bill, H.R. 4447, which
demanded that the attorney general cease all Salvadoran detentions and
deportations for three years.47 Moreover, the bill sought to provide for tempo-
rary suspension of deportation for Salvadorans by creating a congressional
mandate that could supersede the attorney general’s authority to grant EVD.
This time around, Moakley’s bill resonated with a larger community that had
coalesced around the issue of Salvadoran refugees.
Over the course of the early 1980s, support for displaced Salvadorans
attempting to find asylum in the United States grew among two specific
groups: international humanitarian organizations and religious foundations
that emphasized human rights. Dubbed the “Sanctuary Movement,” the
movement included groups such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross,
and a variety of churches in the Southwest, Southern California, and the mid-
Atlantic. The movement built upon the foundations of those groups who had
attempted to aid the first wave of displaced Salvadorans in 1980 and 1981.
Groups associated with the Sanctuary Movement made numerous appear-
ances before congressional committees to testify on behalf of displaced
Salvadorans.48 While lobbying Congress and the UNHCR for special legal
protection, the Sanctuary Movement provided safe haven for potential
deportees, attempted to increase public awareness of the refugee crisis, raised
bail money for detainees, and, most important, linked together impromptu
legal offices in Latino communities across the country with a variety of law
firms to help detainees apply for protection and contest through the courts
the existing federal law.49
Although the Sanctuary Movement helped Moakley’s bill gain more trac-
tion than Kennedy’s earlier proposal, it was met with staunch resistance from
administration officials. By virtue of the advisory committees created under
the 1980 act, the State Department still held preponderant power over refugee
decisions. Elliott Abrams disparaged the larger portion of Salvadoran refu-
gees who had entered the United States illegally and only ex post facto
demanded asylum status, the equivalent of refugee status for foreign nationals
living in the United States.50 Moreover, Abrams and other State Department
officials repeatedly claimed that Moakley’s bill would render the 1980 Refugee
Act illegal by including a stipulation using national origin as a qualification
for refugee status. Echoing earlier comments by Secretary of State Haig
370 | “For Fear of Persecution”

regarding the nature of Salvadoran immigration, State Department officials

listed three mains reasons for rejecting the bill: because it would “encourage
illegal immigration,” because “Salvadorans were welcome as refugees in neigh-
boring countries,” and finally, because the bill would “conflict with U.S. foreign
policy.”51 The bill languished in committee hearings and ultimately failed.
Unfazed by the bill’s defeat, the Sanctuary Movement and its congres-
sional allies soon found support from a series of new reports throughout 1983
and 1984 that lent credence to their pro-refugee arguments. According to a
special fact-finding mission convened by members of the AFL-CIO in early
1983, many intranation refugees, living in ramshackle camps throughout San
Salvador, stated that the Salvadoran armed forces had burned their homes to
the ground, often razing entire villages.52 Indeed, the deplorable conditions of
the camps in Central America forced many refugees to move northward.53
A variety of religious organizations on missions to aid internally displaced
Salvadorans reported similar stories, of Salvadoran military ordering raids
and unprovoked attacks on rural villagers.54 Individual testimonies from dis-
placed Salvadorans told similar stories to Congress, although in more vivid
and compelling language. One man, a sixty-three-year-old from the village of
Guazapa, submitted a recorded recount of his experiences:
“I fled from bombs, from airplanes . . . the soldiers came on foot
and the airplanes were above us,” he said. “We couldn’t stand it
anymore . . . we saw people massacred and we suffered. We came
from the mountains, fleeing. The airplanes were horrid, some had
bombs, others shot bullets, others had rockets. They were bombing
hard. These bombs burned us, they burned me and my clothes, too.
The only way we stopped the burning was with mud. . . . I thank God
that nothing happened to me, but the others died. I don’t know why
the military came to our town. I want the bombing to stop.”55
Such testimony intended to show that not only was the situation in El Salvador
deteriorating because of the United States’ involvement, but that refugees
such as this were purely political in nature.
Central to the debate over EVD, too, was the question of whether the
warring groups in El Salvador targeted deportees upon their return home.
The Sanctuary Movement, along with congressional fact-finding groups and
the AFL-CIO, advocated that the INS and U.S. Embassy conduct a study on
what happens to deported Salvadorans upon their return. The Red Cross
attempted multiple times to pursue such a project but failed because of the
difficulty of tracking individuals through war-torn regions of the country,
stephen macekura | 371

especially given that these individuals were often displaced upon their return.
Although the congressional fact-finding subcommittee nonetheless sup-
ported another attempt at such an endeavor, they too recognized the quixotic
nature of the project: “The displacement of people caused by the conflict will
make it difficult to follow returning Salvadorans, and many are likely to ‘dis-
appear’ as they move to new areas of the country.” The subcommittee sug-
gested that in light of the difficulty of learning the nature of deportees’ returns,
it was necessary in the meantime to grant EVD. “It would seem only prudent
and fair,” the committee wrote, “to give Salvadorans the benefit of the doubt—
to suspend deportations until the results of such a study are available.”56
Yet no suspension of deportations occurred, and the Reagan administra-
tion remained steadfast in its interpretation of the 1980 Refugee Act. In the
summer of 1984, Moakley, now head of the Committee of Rules in the House,
co-sponsored a revised H.R. 4447, which called for a halt in Salvadoran
deportation. In response to the new bill, Elliott Abrams responded that under
the Refugee Act and the individualistic definition of refugee, the State
Department was not only legally justified in rejecting EVD attempts, but
actually was following the law as specifically as possible by not creating a
“national” refugee policy for a national group, such as Salvadorans. “All sus-
pension of deportation decisions require a balancing of judgments about
their foreign policy, humanitarian, and immigration policy implications,”
Abrams continued. Since El Salvador had a “history of large-scale illegal im-
migration to the United States,” an extension of EVD would surely elicit an
unprecedented wave of illegal immigrants arriving at American borders for
personal economic reasons.57 Salvadorans, in essence, were just repeating the
patterns established by those in the prewar years, of economic migrants,
despite the marked increase in immigration numbers. In 1983, the State
Department claimed that 8,010 Salvadorans submitted asylum applications,
of which they granted asylum to only 205, about 2.5 percent, with hundreds
of thousands of Salvadoran refugees scattered throughout Central America
and Mexico with no legal protection.58 For the entire decade, the refugee
review committees denied 97 percent of the Salvadorans who applied for ref-
ugee. The figure stands in stark contrast to other refugee seekers, such as
people fleeing Poland, who had around 40 percent success rate in asylum
application in the 1980s, or especially Nicaragua, who, from the years 1979 to
1983, had a success rate for receiving refugee protection of above 50 percent.59
Throughout the debates, a clear political delineation thus emerged over
the issue of EVD, with the administration routinely denying any requests
for EVD extension and using allies in Congress to argue for their stance.
372 | “For Fear of Persecution”

Representatives from the administration, such as Abrams, continually reiter-

ated that EVD would actually stand against the established refugee law by
creating a nationality-based mandate for federal protection. Within the
administration, there was indeed unanimity against EVD. In the summer of
1983, Secretary of State George Schultz and Attorney General William French
Smith oversaw separate investigations concerning the fate of deported Salva-
dorans. Both men concluded that deportees faced no consistent “fear of per-
secution” per the key clause of the 1980 act, and therefore Salvadorans had no
legal standing to earn EVD. 60
In the mid-1980s, as Congress debated the state of EVD, Central American
immigration, legal and illegal, had become an issue of national significance.
Nowhere were the political and cultural aspects of the Salvadoran crisis more
apparent than in the 1984 Senate campaign of Jesse Helms. Helms, a conser-
vative Republican senator from North Carolina, quickly became a leading
figurehead of the resurgent political Right.61 The senator had taken to refugee
issues in the 1970s, launching vituperative attacks toward the Indochinese
refugee assistance. He became one of the foremost restrictionist voices in the
Senate.62 In 1984, Helms focused heavily on Central America during his
reelection campaign. Always vociferous in his restrictionist platform, Helms
rebuked the Reagan administration for supporting a centrist government,
which, in strained logic, Helms condemned as a capitulation to leftist forces.
Calling the Salvadorans “Feet People” (a play on the common description of
the Indochinese “boat people”), Helms lambasted Ted Kennedy, the Reagan
administration, and the Salvadoran government alike. “They [Salvadoran
refugees] will come over our border with impunity,” he stated in a campaign
rally to his supporters. “Do you really want communism to take over your
front yard?”63
Helms outmaneuvered his opponent and secured his reelection. Helms’s
campaign, run an on anti-immigration, anti-amnesty platform, used the feel-
ings engendered by immigration, refugees, and anticommunism as rhetorical
tools to politicize the Salvadoran issue. His public promulgations attest to the
fact that by the mid-1980s the Salvadoran crisis had infused American
politics with a revived sense of restrictionism and xenophobia. As Carl Bon
Tempo has noted, the question of who is an American has always been polit-
icized, especially in refugee affairs.64 The public reawakening of vitriolic anti-
immigrant sentiments in the wake of the Salvadoran civil war is one of the
enduring legacies of the refugee and EVD debates of the 1980s. And it was
evident by 1984 that the refugee crisis was now inexorably tied in public dis-
course to broader sentiments regarding Latin American immigration.
stephen macekura | 373

By 1985, debates over EVD continued in earnest, but it became increas-

ingly clear that Moakley could not generate enough support to pass the bill
through Congress. The Reagan administration and State Department’s stead-
fast intransigence on the issue inhibited the passage of any lenient legislation.
According to relief agencies, more than five hundred thousand displaced
Salvadorans had entered the United States seeking sanctuary. The majority of
those displaced persons remained outside the protective bounds of the law.65

a pyrrhic victory: irca, the end of the cold war, and

The Salvadoran plight experienced an unanticipated boon in 1986 with
the passage of an omnibus Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in
1986.66 The passage of IRCA proved to be a watershed moment for Salvadorans.
Although when IRCA successfully proceeded through Congress in 1986,
it presented hope for Salvadorans seeking refuge, the language and meaning of
the law created new challenges. To document illegal immigrants, IRCA called
for the creation of an employment authorization document (EAD), which
would confer legal status upon those working within the United States. More-
over, IRCA offered an amnesty program, which allowed for undocumented
immigrants who had been living in the United States since 1982 to apply for
permanent residency. This afforded legal citizenship status upon the first
wave of displaced Salvadorans who entered the country during the first few
years of the civil war. Yet for Salvadorans who entered the United States after
January 1, 1982, the EAD stipulation was specious. In the mid-1980s, many
Salvadorans who had entered the country illegally during their refugee plight
were working in industries that did not request proof of work authorizations,
such as restaurants, hotels, and factories. IRCA also emphasized sanctions for
employers who hired undocumented workers. These sanctions made it more
difficult for undocumented workers, such as the hundreds of thousands of
undocumented Salvadorans, to find paying jobs. After IRCA, too, the number
of refugee and asylum seekers increased as Salvadorans now facing unem-
ployment and potential deportation resorted to makeshift legal consultancies
in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods throughout the country.67
Yet IRCA’s implicit threat of mass deportation alarmed Salvadoran pres-
ident José Napoleón Duarte. In the midst of negotiating a first wave of peace
settlements, Duarte sought to strengthen the position of Salvadorans residing
in the United States. He recognized that El Salvador’s fledgling domestic
economy had come to rely on remittance payments sent from expatriated
374 | “For Fear of Persecution”

Salvadorans to family members back home. Keeping those individuals, many

of whom did not have legal citizenship status, within the United States became
an imperative for maintaining capital inflows to the country and preventing a
massive exodus of repatriated Salvadorans coming back into the country.
Duarte outlined this fact in explicit detail in a public April 1987 letter to Pres-
ident Reagan. Instead of arguing that displaced Salvadorans still faced a “fear
of persecution” upon return, Duarte argued that the remittance economy
necessitated that displaced Salvadorans remain in the United States and earn
legal status therein. It was an ironic turn of argument, given that it helped
gain State Department backing for a revised version of Moakley’s original
EVD bill.68 In mid-October 1987, Reagan cordially invited Duarte to the
White House, where he publicly praised the Salvadoran leader for going “the
extra mile” to achieve peace and stability in El Salvador. Recognizing a new
path toward achieving final victory against leftist forces, Reagan, whose Cen-
tral American policies had been battered over the summer by congressional
hearings over the Iran-Contra affair, publicly voiced support for displaced
Salvadorans, whose protection now benefited the foreign policy consider-
ations of the United States.69
Salvadorans seeking legal status in the United States also derived encour-
agement from a resolution to a major court case in early 1988. Church groups
and other NGOs had brought suit against the attorney general and INS in
American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh. The suit claimed that the adminis-
tration made Salvadoran refugee decisions based on the ideological orienta-
tion of the Salvadoran government and that international refugee law, not the
1980 Refugee Act, should decide such cases. Accordingly, Salvadorans
deserved refuge. The decision also mandated that the INS and the State
Department consider social-group identity, such as young males, when review-
ing refugee or asylum decisions. It also permitted third-party groups, such as
churches or nongovernmental organizations, to litigate further, which resulted
in a number of new court cases that in effect halted most wide-scale deporta-
tions. This new avenue for litigation culminated in a 1991 settlement that afforded
erstwhile and future asylum-seekers the right to de novo interviews.70
Events in El Salvador further facilitated a transformation of Salvadorans’
legal standing in the United States. Peace negotiations broke down in late
1988, after which the guerrillas launched a final offensive against the govern-
ment in 1989. The offensive failed, and once again major peace negotiations
began in 1990.71 Amid the international condemnation of the guerrilla offen-
sive and with Democratic control of Congress, the Senate pushed through a
final revised version of Congressman Moakley’s bill that conferred Temporary
stephen macekura | 375

Protected Status (TPS) upon Salvadorans in the Immigration Act of 1990.

TPS allowed Salvadorans a stay of deportation for eighteen months as well as
the ability to openly seek work and obtain drivers’ licenses.72 The act nonethe-
less represented a drastic change in U.S. federal policy toward displaced per-
sons, since it afforded, for the first time since the 1980s, large-scale protection
to a national group.73 After a year and a half of negotiations, El Salvador’s civil
war finally ended in early 1992. By that time, too, the Soviet Union had col-
lapsed, the Cold War dissipated, and the intense and virulent rhetoric over
Central America that had characterized the 1980s waned considerably. In
1991, the State Department estimated that twenty-seven thousand Salvadoran
refugees returned home safely under the guidance of the UNHCR.74 The con-
flict over Salvadoran refugees transformed as the war ended. The 1997 Nica-
raguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) bolstered
the claims against deportation won by cases such as American Baptist
Churches v. Thornburgh. In the 1990s, many Salvadorans still living in the
United States found themselves with a new set of choices, though enlarged by
the new legal changes that afforded greater freedom of action: whether to stay
in the United States, where they had been residing, and pursue legal protec-
tion, or whether to return home to a war-ravaged nation and attempt to
rebuild their lives from the ashes of war.

conclusion: the salvadoran crisis in american politics

The 1980 Refugee Act transformed the legal language of refugee policy.
It dropped the nation-based formula that legally privileged refugees fleeing
communist nations. In its place, the act installed a more universal definition
for who qualified as a “refugee,” referring to the individualistic terminology
employed by the United Nations. Despite this innovation, however, refugee
policy remained significantly politicized and the pattern of preferring indi-
viduals fleeing communist countries over those fleeing noncommunist coun-
tries continued. In this way, the Reagan administration’s foreign policy
objectives, defeating left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador’s civil war and pro-
tecting the center-right government it supported, dictated its refugee policy.
Moreover, the administration freely and legally rejected Salvadoran
claims for refugee amnesty because the language of the law was vague
regarding the “fear of persecution,” because the law removed nationality as an
organizing category for federal protection, and because the structure of the
law gave preponderant decision-making power to the State Department’s
advisory boards overseeing each amnesty case. It was an unintended
376 | “For Fear of Persecution”

consequence of an act that sought to improve American human rights policy

by emphasizing the rights of individuals over groups and allow for refugees to
seek refuge from any nation, communist or not. The Salvadoran case attests
to the contingency of legal changes in refugee policy and the many ways in
which those consequences can alter the lives of persons deemed alien or illegal.
The Salvadoran refugee crisis, viewed from a different perspective, also
offers an insight into American political culture. Although an atypical case
(Helms, throughout his career, was anything but typical), the 1984 Helms
campaign demonstrated the extent to which Salvadoran immigration suf-
fused politics in the United States during the 1980s. Indeed, the debate over
Salvadorans was not merely confined to the halls of Congress and interested
extragovernmental humanitarians, but by the mid-1980s the Salvadoran
plight made refugee politics a central issue in American politics. Helms fre-
quently invoked questions of American identity to justify in cultural terms
the political exclusion of Salvadoran refugees and to promote an aggressive
anticommunist policy in Central America.
Yet an anti-immigrant, antirefugee political culture that rejected Salva-
dorans as citizens—figuratively or legally—cannot alone explain how and
why the Reagan administration refused admission to refugees and asylum-
seekers. The administration’s foreign policy objectives in Central America
shaped the course of its refugee policy. Only when these two factors are taken
together—the public reaction against the displaced Salvadorans and the
administration’s linkage of the issue to foreign policy—does it start to become
clearer both how the administration justified aid to anticommunist forces in
Central America as a solution to the refugee crisis and why such a policy
would resonate domestically. Indeed, these two powerful forces—the admin-
istration’s foreign policy concerns and resurgent conservative nativism—pro-
vided a remarkable challenge for the Sanctuary Movement and its
congressional allies. In this way, the Salvadoran saga shows how refugee is-
sues have been inexorably framed by foreign policy concerns, which in turn
have framed the bounds of American immigration law and resonated with
domestic political culture.

University of Virginia


1. Carl Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During
the Cold War (Princeton, 2008), esp. chaps. 1–6.
stephen macekura | 377

2. Public Law 96-212, “Refugee Act of 1980,” United States Statutes at Large, 1980, vol.
94, part 1 (Washington, D.C., 1981).
3. Ibid.
4. The best examples of this burgeoning field are Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate,
and Gil Loescher and John A. Scanlan, Calculated Kindness: Refugee and America’s Half-
Open Door: 1945 to the Present (New York, 1986).
5. Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America
(Princeton, 2004); Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in
America (Princeton, 2002); Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in
the Fashioning of America (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).
6. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, offers the best example. See his introduction
for a more thorough discussion of the historiography of refugee policy, international rela-
tions, and American political history.
7. Ibid., 173–79.
8. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights Remarks at a White House Meeting
Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Declaration’s Signing,” 6 December 1978,
Public Papers of the President: Jimmy Carter 1978: Book II. (online) <http://www.presidency.> (accessed 12 October 2008).
9. For more on the evolution of refugee policy during the Cold War and the devel-
opment of this definition, see Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, chaps. 2–6.
10. For a detailed legislative history of the 1980 Act, see Loescher and Scanlan,
Calculated Kindness, chap. 9; Edward M. Kennedy, “Refugee Act of 1980,” International
Migration Review 15, no. 1/2 (Spring–Summer 1981): 141–56; Bon Tempo, Americans at the
Gate, chap. 7.
11. Public Law 96–212, “Refugee Act of 1980,” United States Statutes at Large, 1980,
vol. 94, part 1 (Washington, D.C., 1981).
12. “Refugee” is a different legal category than “asylum.” Foreign nationals living
outside the United States apply for “refugee” status; foreign nationals within the United
States apply for “asylum” status. Unless otherwise notes, this article focuses on refugees.
For more on this distinction and the 1980 Refugee Act, see Bon Tempo, Americans at the
Gate, 178–79.
13. Carl Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, 177–79.
14. Lars Schoultz, “Central America and the Politicization of U.S. Immigration Policy,”
in Western Hemisphere Immigration and United States Foreign Policy, ed. Christopher
Mitchell (University Park, Pa., 1992), 204.
15. Robert Pear, “U.S. Is Giving Nicaraguan Refugees a 3-Month Extension for Stay
Here,” New York Times, 1 July 1980, A17.
16. Robert Kagan, A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977–1990
(New York, 996), 102–4. For overviews of American foreign policy toward El Salvador
in the late 1970s and 1980s, see Cynthia Arnson, El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts the
United States (Washington, D.C., 1982); and Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit: U.S.
Policy and El Salvador (New York, 1984).
17. Loescher and Scanlan, Calculated Kindness, 171.
18. Arnson, El Salvador, 50–53, and Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 199.
19. Lou Cannon, “Reagan Is Conciliatory in Foreign Policy Statement,” Washington
Post, 18 March 1980, A4.
378 | “For Fear of Persecution”

20. Speech reprinted in Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson,
eds., Reagan, In His Own Hand (New York, 2001), 485.
21. Lee Lescaze, “President Approves Aid for Nicaragua: Carter Approves Aid
Package of $75 Million for Nicaragua,” Washington Post, 13 September 1980, A1.
22. “U.S. Returns Illegal Immigrants Who Are Fleeing Salvadoran War,” New York Times,
2 March 1981, A1. See also Arnson, El Salvador, 57–62, for more on the Christmas murders.
23. Salvadorans Held on Coast as Aliens Ask Reagan for Asylum,” New York Times,
22 July 1981, A8; Mary Thornton, “Refusing Asylum to Salvadorans May Violate Pact, UN
Probe Finds,” Washington Post, 31 January 1982, A17.
24. Department of State, “White Paper on El Salvador,” 23 February 1981.
25. Quoted in Walter Lafeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central
America (New York, 1983), 271. For more on the Reagan administration’s strategy in Latin
America, see LaFeber’s introduction and Kagan, A Twilight Struggle, introduction.
26. “Central America, 1981,” Report to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House
of Representatives (Washington, D.C., 1981), 22–29.
27. Department of State, “White Paper on El Salvador,” 23 February 1981.
28. Paul Spickard, Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, Colonialism in American
History and Identity (New York, 2007), chap. 9.
29. On Indochinese refugees, see Kenton Clymer, “Jimmy Carter, Human Rights, and
Cambodia,” Diplomatic History 27, no. 2 (2003): 245–78. On the Haitians and the Mariel
boatlift, see Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, 179–84.
30. Quoted in Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, 169.
31. “U.S. Returns Illegal Immigrants Who Are Fleeing Salvadoran War,” New York
Times, 2 March 1981, A1.
32. Department of State Bulletin, October 1981, 21.
33. Jonathan Harsch, “Battling for US Immigration Reform,” Christian Science
Monitor, 27 January 1982, 12.
34. Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 76.
35. Department of State Bulletin, October 1981, 21.
36. “U.S. Policy in El Salvador, Political Asylum for Salvadoran Refugees in the United
States and the U.S. Contribution to UNHCR,” nonclassified letter, 9 March 1982, 2 pp.
(online) <> (accessed 12 September 2008). On
the whole, this article relies heavily on newspapers and published primary-source material
because much of the Reagan administration’s papers on refugee policy remain classified.
37. Quoted in Susan Bibler Coutin, Nations of Emigrants: Shifting Boundaries of
Citizenship in El Salvador and the United States (Ithaca, 2007), 48–49.
38. Mary Thornton, “Refusing Asylum to Salvadorans May Violate Pact, U.N. Probe
Finds,” Washington Post, 31 January 1982, A17.
39. Department of State, “Migration and Refugee Assistance, FY1983,” February 1982.
(online) <> (accessed 12 September 2008).
40. Mary Thornton, “Alien Arrests Rise at Mexican Border,” Washington Post, 18
January 1983, A9.
41. Poll cited in Maria Cristina Garcia, Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to
Mexico, the United States, and Canada (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006), 92.
42. Gallup/Newsweek Poll, June 1984; Gallup/Newsweek Poll, June 1984. (online) <http://> (accessed 18 February 2010);
stephen macekura | 379

Associated Press/Media General Poll, February 1985. (online) <http://www.ropercenter.> (accessed 18 February 2010).
43. Margot Hornblower and Patrick E. Tyler, “House Panel Votes Ban on U.S. Aid in
Nicaraguan War,” Washington Post, 13 April 1983, A18.
44. Quoted in State Department Bulletin, September 1982, 44.
45. “Reagan on Central America: Democratic Response,” CQ Electronic Library, CQ
Historic Documents Series Online Edition, hsdc83-0000112496. Originally published in
Historic Documents of 1983 (Washington, D.C., 1984). (online)
historicdocuments/hsdc83-0000112496 (accessed 18 October 2008).
46. Henry Kissinger, “Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central
America,” January 1984.
47. Schoultz, “Central America and the Politicization of U.S. Immigration Policy,”
48. Sanctuary Movement activists made numerous appearances before Congress.
Three examples of their testimonies can be found in “Special Fact-Finding Report by
the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El
Salvador,” printed in Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International
Organizations, Committee of Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 26 July 1983
(Washington, D.C., 1984); “Testimonies by the Refugees in San Salvador, July 1983,” printed
in Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations,
Committee of Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 26 July 1983 (Washington, D.C.,
1984); “HR 4447, Extended Voluntary Departure for Salvadorans,” Hearings Before the
Subcommittee on the Rules of the House (Washington, D.C., 1985).
49. For more on the Sanctuary Movement, see Susan Bibler Coutin, The Culture of
Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement (Boulder, 1993); David E.
Simcox, “Overview: A Time of Reform and Reappraisal,” in U.S. Immigration in the 1980s:
Reappraisal and Reform, ed. David E. Simcox (Boulder, 1988), 55–57; “US Group Aidesteps
Immigration Laws to Aid Salvadorans,”Christian Science Monitor, 19 March 1982, 5.
50. “HR 4447, Extended Voluntary Departure for Salvadorans,” Hearings Before the
Subcommittee on the Rules of the House (Washington, D.C., 1985), 4–5.
51. Quoted in Schoultz, “Central America and the Politicization of U.S. Immigration
Policy,” 215.
52. “Special Fact-Finding Report by the National Labor Committee in Support of
Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador,” printed in Hearings Before the Subcommittee
on Human Rights and International Organizations, Committee of Foreign Affairs, House of
Representatives, 26 July 1983 (Washington, D.C., 1984), 146.
53. “Refugee Problems in Central America,” Staff Report, United States Senate,
Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy, Committee on the Judiciary (Washington,
D.C., 1984).
54. “Report of an Ecumenical Delegation on the Refugees and the Displaced in El
Salvador,” reprinted in ibid.
55. “Testimonies by the Refugees in San Salvador, July 1983,” reprinted in ibid., 161.
56. Ibid., 38.
57. Department of State Bulletin, September 1984, 48–49.
58. Department of State, Bureau for Refugee Programs, World Refugee Report,
September 1985, 53–60, 118–19.
380 | “For Fear of Persecution”

59. Schoultz, “Central America and the Politicization of U.S. Immigration Policy,”
205–7; Department of State, Bureau for Refugee Programs, World Refugee Report,
September 1985, 53–60, 118–19.
60. Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy on the
Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, March 13, 1984” (Washington, D.C.,
1985), 25–28.
61. The scholarship on the rise of the conservative movement in the late twentieth
century is large and growing. For a look at the Reagan revolution and the role of conser-
vatism in racial and immigration politics, see, for example, Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis
Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, 2005); Gary Gerstle,
American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2002), epilogue;
James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America: Making Sense of the
Battles over the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics (New York, 1991); Sean Wilentz,
The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (New York, 2008).
62. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, 169–70.
63. “Helms is Assailed by Rival on Foreign Stands,” New York Times, 27 May 1984, 29.
64. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate, 5–7. Helms’s prescription for the conflict
in El Salvador—giving power to death-squad leader and former military officer Robert
D’Aubuisson, whom former Ambassador Robert White called a “psychopathic killer”—
even outflanked on the right the Reagan administration with regard to policy toward El
Salvador. He drew the ire of the administration for his support of D’Aubuisson, but he
did not wholly discredit the senator’s reelection campaign. On this controversy, see Link,
Righteous Warrior, 245–50.
65. James LeMoyne, “Central America’s Displaced and Displeased,” New York Times,
2 June 1985, E5.
66. “Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Rules of the House, June 20, 1984”
(Washington, D.C., 1984), 3. For more on the IRCA, see, for instance, Tichenor, Dividing
Lines, chap. 9; Zolberg, A Nation by Design, 370–81; David M. Reimers, Unwelcome
Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigration (New York, 1998), 26–28.
67. Susan Bibler Coutin, Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants’ Struggle for U.S.
Residency (Ann Arbor, 2000), 16–17.
68. Robert Pear, “Duarte Appeals to Reagan to Let Salvadorans Stay,” New York Times,
26 April 1987, 1. See also quoted in Schoultz, “Central America and the Politicization of U.S.
Immigration Policy,”216–17. For more on El Salvador’s “Remittance Economy,” see Edward
Funkhouser, “Remittances from International Migration: A Comparison of El Salvador
and Nicaragua,” Review of Economics and Statistics 77, no. 1 (February 1995): 137–46.
69. Reagan’s speech introducing Duarte, reprinted in Department of State Bulletin,
January 1988, 58–59.
70. Coutin, Legalizing Moves, 4.
71. Ibid., 17–18.
72. Cameron Barr, “Salvadoran Refugees Protected,” Christian Science Monitor,
19 November 1990, 8.
73. Jay Mathews, “500,000 Immigrants Granted Legal Status: A Milestone for Central
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