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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1991: American Baptist Churches (ABC) v. Thornburgh

Rachel, Romero, designer. Help the Guatemalans! 1976. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh (also known as the ABC settlement) was a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Attorney General and the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), charging the agency for discriminatory treatment against Guatemalan and Salvadoran asylum seekers. Filed by a coalition of religious, political organizations, and sanctuary committees, the 1991 ABC settlement advocated for fair asylum proceedings for Central American nationals, who the INS recognized as “economic migrants” rather than asylum-seekers fleeing violence and civil war.

The Refugee Act of 1980, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, increased the annual ceiling for refugees, created a refugee resettlement program, and recognized any individual with a “well-rounded fear of persecution” as a refugee. During this period, a civil war ravished El Salvador and Guatemala, leading many natives to flee. The Reagan administration considered Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees “economic immigrants” instead of political asylum seekers, enabling the INS to deport Salvadorans and Guatemalans before allowing them to file asylum cases. The U. S. granted asylum to only 1% and 3% of Guatemalans and Salvadorans respectively. This percentage fell short of the 30% average for other nationalities.

In 1991, a coalition of 80 religious and advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against the government for discriminatory treatment to Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers. The government negotiated the ABC case by permitting an estimated 300,000 Salvadorians and Guatemalans, who had been denied asylum claims or extended voluntary departure and had entered the United States on or before 1990, to reapply for political asylum and receive work authorization and protection from deportation. Salvadorans or Guatemalans who qualified for ABC settlement benefits were subject to detention if convicted for a crime.

Congress enacted the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American (NACRA) in 1997 after a backlog in processed asylum applications from Guatemalans and Salvadorans and stringent requirements from the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) prevented these two groups from receiving legal status. Under this act, an estimated 83,340 Salvadorans and Guatemalans who had been in the U.S. since 1990 and who benefited under the ABC settlement became legal permanent residents.


1980s About 500,000 Salvadorians and Guatemalans flee civil unrest and violence.
1982 In Orantes-Hernandez v. Smith, the court finds discrimination patterns committed by the INS and border patrol agents, who would force Salvadorians and Guatemalans to assent to voluntary departure or deliver false or insufficient information to asylum seekers.
1980 President Jimmy Carter signs into law the Refugee Act of 1980, expanding the annual ceiling for refugees from 17,400 to 50,000 and redefines the word “refugee” to include any individual with a “well-rounded fear of persecution”.
1983 Representative Joe Moakley and Senator Dennis Deconcini propose an unsuccessful bill known as the “Moakley-Deconcini” that would halt deportations for Nicaraguans and Salvadorians fleeing civil war.
1985 A coalition of churches and advocates of the sanctuary movement file a lawsuit against the INS, charging the government for violating the Refugee Act of 1980 and discriminating against Guatemalans and Salvadorans.
1989 The Final Offensive in El Salvador leads to the murder of Jesuit priests, civilian and soldier casualties, and invasion of San Salvador (the capitol of El Salvador) by the guerillas.
1990 Congress ratifies Temporary Protected Status (TPS), permitting eligible recipients to obtain legal status and work authorizations in the U.S. for designated periods. Salvadorians are the first recipients of TPS.
1991 The Northern District Court of California passes the ABC settlement and addresses the INS’ unfair political asylum proceedings. The court also guarantees stays of deportation for Guatemalans and Salvadorians.
1992 The Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNLF) sign the Chapultepec Peace Accords, ending the Salvadoran Civil War.
1996 Four top rebel leaders and representatives of the government sign the Guatemalan Peace Accords, ending 36 years of civil conflict.

Congress passes the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) to address asylum cases that had been backlogged.


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