Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 7, 1988
Asylum Program Needs Aid To Continue Refugee Work
By Paula Day
The Bercian family received a special gift for Christmas this year. The Canadian Consulate in Atlanta gave them permission to migrate to Canada.
Early in 1982 Mr. Saul Bercian sought asylum in the United States from the violence in his homeland of El Salvador. His wife Miriam, joined him later. Their children, Roger, 2, and twins, Eric and Dennis, 1, were born in this country while the couples request for asylum here was pending.
In El Salvador, at the request of the military, Bercian had been involved in a civilian neighborhood watch system. The system is an effort by the government to achieve order and fight crime at the local level, according to Sister Barbara Harrington, G.N.S.H. Bercian was identified and threatened by the guerrilla forces for this involvement. He left the area for another province and was searched for there by the guerrillas. He finally had to leave El Salvador to escape from those who were tracking him.
His story is rather typical, Sister Harrington says. A person is reported to be on one side or the other and then theyre at risk. Theres no recourse for someone like that. The government cant protect them. Its not capable of being everywhere. Mr. Bercian was sort of a hustler successful because of his own industriousness and so he stood out.
As time passed, it became clear that the U.S. narrow interpretation of the United Nations Convention Agreement would make it difficult and perhaps impossible for the Bercian family to receive U.S. asylum.
Canadas broader interpretation follows the spirit of the law of the Convention according to Sister Harrington, who directs Hispanic affairs for the archdiocese in Catholic Social Services. Canada considers anyone who if fleeing violence to be a refugee. When the Bercians uncertain future became clear, they accepted advice from CSS personnel and applied for Canadian asylum.
Its the litmus test, Sister Harrington says. If they really cant go back (to Central America) theyll even go to Canada to the great unknown. If they say, Oh no, Sister, I cant go there. Its very cold, then they arent truly refugees.
Catholic Social Services Hispanic Office has screened, counseled and successfully arranged asylum for 53 of the approximately 100 refugees who have come to them for help in the past year.
Needed documentation and legal proof costs money and Sister Harrington is seeking funding for CSS Refugee in Canada project. In addition to giving legal aid, the office helps pay for rent, medical bills and required testing for those awaiting asylum.
Since April 1987, a part-time position has been partially funded by donations from parishes in the archdiocese. Sister Harrington sees the need for a full-time worker and a stabilized income.
In 1988, doors will close and we want to be ready, she explains. The one-year amnesty program will end, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service will become active again.
The amnesty program to which Sister Harrington refers began May 1, 1987 and will end May 5, 1988. The program helps eligible undocumented aliens receive legal permission to remain in the United States and work through the process of naturalization. One eligibility requirement is that the illegal immigrant must have been in this country on a continuous basis since before January 1, 1982. Many Central Americans, including the Bercians, came to the United States after that date and cant meet this requirement. Sister Harrington also foresees increased violence in Central America and says Congressional efforts to help the Salvadorans stay in the U.S. legally has withered on the vine. In addition to people fleeing Central American violence, the CSS immigration service has helped refugees from other troubled spots including Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iran, South Africa and Romania. Sister Harrington believes it is unlikely the number of refugees seeking asylum will decrease in the new year.
The service is exclusively for people who cannot return to their own country, she points out.
Refugees who come to the Atlanta area may contact CSS directly or be referred to the office by those familiar with its work. As part of its outreach, the Office of Hispanic Affairs has explained its immigration program in a local Hispanic newspaper. They hope to broaden this outreach in 1988.
We need money, Sister Harrington says. We want to clear as many refugees as possible. My job is to see that we have money in place.
Sister Harringtons plea for funds coincides with the celebration of National Migration Week, January 4-9.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops instituted National Migration Week in 1980 to focus attention on all people on the move, and to examine the impact of this movement on each individual Catholics spiritual life. Catholics are asked to remember the plight of those displaced by poverty, economic hardship and other adverse conditions. The week also provides an opportunity to celebrate the multicultural dimension of American society.