Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Refugees find sanctuary in Canada. `Overground Railroad' helps Central Americans get around US law

When 20-year-old ``Eduardo'' fled Guatemala and illegally crossed the Mexican border into Texas nine months ago, he never dreamed that he was embarking on a journey that would eventually take him to Canada - legally. But it did. Shortly after he arrived, he was picked up by the United States Border Patrol and sent to an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center for Central Americans in Los Fresnos, Texas, to await deportation. He languished there for six months, afraid, he says, that when he was sent home he might ``disappear'' as have other politically active university students.

But members of a little-known, Evanston-based group known as the Overground Railroad came to his aid.

About these ads

It was four years ago that members of Reba Place, a Mennonite community in this Chicago suburb, heard that undocumented Salvadoreans and Guatemalans in detention centers were being refused asylum in the US and being returned to their strife-ridden countries. They wanted to help, but they didn't want to break the law.

Canada's more open policy toward accepting Central American refugees has provided at least a partial answer.

Overground Railroad sent a team to a Texas detention camp to find refugees eligible for asylum in Canada. If Canadian authorities permit the refugee to apply for asylum in that country, Overground finds a church willing to bail the individual out of detention and provide a temporary home. The process of applying for asylum in Canada is begun, enabling the refugee to remain in the US for the six months or more it takes for a Canadian visa to be issued.

In 1986 a total of 173 Central Americans ``rode'' the Overground Railroad, which is not as well known nationally as the ``underground railroad'' of the US Sanctuary movement. Sanctuary helps Central Americans enter the US illegally and keeps them here in open defiance of federal immigration laws.

``We violate the spirit of INS laws, but we don't violate the letter of the law,'' says Mary Jude Postel, a staff member of the Overground Railroad in her tiny basement office in a gray clapboard house on a quiet residential street. Reba Place runs the 60-church Overground network in conjunction with Jubilee Partners, a Christian community in Comer, Ga.

Last year, Reba Place started another program called the ``Provisional Legal Refuge.'' In 42 cases involving people not eligible for immigration to Canada, refugees were bailed out of detention and transported to northern US locations before applying for asylum in the US. The advantage of this, explains Ms. Postel, is that, once a refugee is removed from the custody of INS officials, the asylum process can be stretched out over several years.

``This is a response to those most desperate who are just about to be sent home where they could be killed,'' says David Janzen, director of the Overground Railroad. ``It's sort of halfway between Sanctuary and Overground. It's legal, but it doesn't guarantee remaining legal.''

About these ads

So far, no refugee working with Overground has exhausted the entire appeals process. When one does, the church hosting that individual will have to decide whether to defy the law or send the refugee to Canada without papers. At least, says Mr. Janzen, undocumented Salvadoreans and Guatemalans in Canada are not in danger of deportation.

Although it has chosen a legal route to help refugees, the Overground maintains a relationship with the Sanctuary movement, and refugees are often referred from one organization to the other. Former Sanctuary activist Stacey Lynn Merkt, convicted for her Underground Railroad activities, worked with the Overground in Texas. Sanctuary founder John Fife also has close ties with the group, says Postel.

``It's kind of a delicate relationship - publicly,'' she says. ``In the Rio Grande Valley, we really can't use the word sanctuary or our contacts in the INS and our ability to work with them would close off.''

Unlike the Sanctuary movement, the Overground cultivates good relations with the INS, which so far has raised no objection to the organization's methods.

``If the Overground wants to move them on to Canada, we don't take any exception to that,'' says Duke Austin, a spokesman for the INS in Washington, D.C.

In 1986, the Canadian government accepted 3,200 Latin American refugees, most from El Salvador and Guatemala, says Gerry Maffre, a spokesman for the Canadian Employment and Immigration Commission in Ottawa. Canada plans to accept another 3,200 in 1987, all of whom will receive government financial support, he says.

In addition, Janzen estimates that another 3,000 Central American refugees were sponsored by churches and organizations in 1986.

``We're quite happy to be working with groups like the Overground Railroad,'' says Mr. Maffre. ``It helps us help the refugees in an orderly fashion.''

Canadian authorities are willing to allow Salvadoreans and Guatemalans to enter the country legally, in contrast to the INS, Janzen speculates, because ``Canada is a nation of more recent immigration, so they have more of a heart for refugees.

``Their foreign policy is not caught up with conflicts going on in Central America, and their borders are not as close. I also think they are still trying to fill out their frontier, so they need more labor.''

The new immigration law that makes it tougher for illegals who entered the US after 1982 to stay, has thrown a wrench into the workings of the Overground.

``A lot more refugees are now interested in going to Canada,'' says Janzen. ``That makes our work harder. The [Canadian] consulate in Dallas is swamped, and they are being more selective.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.