Longform

AFTER THE TORTURE

Santos Jaco, a small man barely five feet, four inches tall, stands on his toes and peeks over the shoulder of a bearded norteamericano wearing a Maya-style woven pullover. Jaco is trying to see a detailed charcoal drawing hanging on the gallery wall.

The drawing depicts corpses, men and women, thrown on a slab in a morgue. All have been tortured.

Jaco is one of the few Salvadorans who show up for the opening of this art exhibit at the trendy Arizona State University Art Museum.

Jaco isn't here for the social event, though. He's curious to see how native artists documented El Salvador's 12-year-long civil war, even though the exhibit brings back memories of the torture he says he suffered back in 1984, when he was a high school student. When the National Guardsmen came looking for him. When they found him.

"Yes, this is accurate," Jaco says, raising his voice so he can be heard above the festive marimba music a group of university students is playing just a few feet away.

"Yes, always, they tie the hands behind a person with a rope, then they strap the rope to a post or a tree. And the pain in the arms is incredible."

Santos Jaco left El Salvador nine years ago. Back then, he says, he was a kid who helped out the leftist cause by encouraging campesinos, or peasants, to join agricultural cooperatives.

This leftist, afterschool activity angered Jaco's father, Nicolas, a soldier in the government army. His father felt disgraced that his only son was a guerrilla sympathizer, Jaco says.

Jaco suspects his own father informed on him in 1984.
After his arrest by the National Guard, an internal Salvadoran security force, Jaco was tortured for a week and left for dead in a garbage dump on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador's capital city. Jaco recovered, gradually made his way north. First Mexico City. Then Los Angeles. And finally Phoenix.

Now the 26-year-old is a social-service coordinator for a Valley church organization. In that role, he regularly explains American immigration law to recent arrivals. He is also one of thousands of Salvadorans caught up in a set of changing immigration regulations so confusing as to all but defy explanation.

The University of Central America in El Salvador says about one million Salvadorans--20 percent of the population of El Salvador--now live in the United States. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offers much lower estimates. The INS guesses that about 327,000 Salvadorans live in the United States illegally. Another 190,000 Salvadorans, including Jaco, are here legally, the INS says.

For now.
In the constantly shifting morass of INS regulations, Jaco says, he and other Salvadorans never know what's going to happen next. First, the INS granted him "Temporary Protective Status," or TPS, which means he could live and work legally in the United States. But his TPS expired in 1992.

So he was classified as DED.
"Deferred Enforced Departure" meant Jaco could stay in the United States indefinitely--as long as the President of the United States extended the DED program through executive order. In fact, presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton were both pressured by the Salvadoran government to allow the 190,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. legally to remain here. El Salvador depends on Salvadorans in the U.S. to supply it with foreign currency. Each Salvadoran sends home, on average, $1,000 annually. That means exiled Salvadorans pump as much as $1 billion each year into their homeland, which is struggling to rebuild itself after a devastating civil war. Bowing to political pressure from El Salvador, Bush granted Salvadorans extra time here. Then Clinton extended their stay.

But late last year, the INS told Jaco he will face deportation proceedings in September, unless he files for asylum and can prove, during a lengthy series of interviews and hearings, that he has a well-founded fear of persecution should he return to his country. It will not be easy to prove such a claim. The INS says human-rights abuses in El Salvador have abated since the rebels and government signed peace accords in 1992; that it's safe to go home now.

Clinton refused to grant another extension for Jaco and 190,000 of his fellow countrymen to remain in the U.S.

A total of 5,490 immigrants from Liberia, Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda are in the same boat, the U.S. Committee for Refugees says. These immigrants also face deportation after being granted temporary safe haven. But their numbers pale in comparison with the 190,000 Salvadorans, the largest DED group ever to face deportation proceedings.

Sending the Salvadorans home could be seen as well-intentioned. The 1992 peace agreement, in the eyes of the INS, signals the end of political violence in El Salvador.

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Terry Greene