Salvadoran Immigrants Feel Tense Uncertainty About Future Status

SABINA GONZALEZ didn't have much of a view when she first crossed into United States territory, via Tijuana, in June 1990. The young Salvadoran woman was piled in a van with 30 other people, mattresses and wooden boards atop them to provide cover for their illegal immigration.

Ms. Gonzalez was fleeing El Salvador's civil war in fear for her life, she says. She had supported the leftist guerrilla cause while a radio broadcaster in the city of San Miguel, and then refused the Army's offer of money and a visa to the United States in exchange for intelligence on the rebels.

"I was afraid they would make an 'accident' for me," says Gonzalez, twisting the gold ring she got from her fiance, who was killed in the war.

A year and a half later, now settled in Washington, D.C., Gonzalez has joined another battle of sorts: to rally support for an extension of the US government's Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which has allowed about 185,000 undocumented Salvadoran immigrants to remain and work in the US legally. Gonzalez is herself enrolled in the 18-month program, which expires June 30.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has begun notifying TPS participants that, after June 30, they will need to justify their continued presence in the US or appear for a deportation hearing March 31, 1993. The notifications have frightened many Salvadoran immigrants, say refugee advocates.

"Salvadorans don't understand the particulars," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Forum. "They get a form from the INS that has the word 'deportation' in it. They hear there's a peace accord [in El Salvador]. And they fear the US is gearing up to send them back."

Rep. Joe Moakley (D) of Massachusetts, who fought for seven years to get the program passed, sent letters Jan. 9 to Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State James Baker III urging an 18-month extension of TPS for Salvadorans. Extension must be authorized by the attorney general. (Congressman Moakley and Sen. Dennis Deconcini (D) of Arizona, who sponsored the Senate version of the program, had made a gentleman's agreement at the time the bill passed that they would not try to extend it through

further legislation.)

Congressman Moakley hopes Secretary Baker will see an extension of the program as supportive of El Salvador's fragile peace - and therefore of US foreign policy there - and will urge the new attorney general to extend TPS. Impact of deportations

A mass return of Salvadoran immigrants to their homeland could throw the country back into turmoil, says Moakley. Finding jobs for demobilized soldiers and guerrillas will be hard enough without a new influx of unemployed workers. In all, there are about 800,000 Salvadorans in the US, with the largest community in Los Angeles. About 350,000 are covered by TPS, when dependents are included.

Salvadorans working here also provide an important source of financial support for their homeland - up to $700 million a year in remittances. The US government will not come close to matching that in aid to the country.

Considering the US's consistent support for the Salvadoran government during the war, says Moakley, "the US has a moral obligation to help the country rebuild." One way, he argues, is to allow the southward flow of cash to continue.

Both the Salvadoran government and the guerrilla movement support an extension of the program for the same reasons. Miguel Salaverria, El Salvador's ambassador here, has discussed the issue with Bernard Aronson, the State Department's top official on Latin affairs.

"I think everybody understands the problem," says Ambassador Salaverria. "It's a matter of timing for both of us. I know it's a delicate question in your political year."

The conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) plans to make political hay out of the TPS program, and is massing materials to sway opinion against an extension.

"The problem with these 'temporary' programs is they're never temporary," says FAIR spokesman Dave Ray. "These illegals wind up staying, and that sends a signal to anyone in a country with economic, political, or even environmental problems that it's OK to skirt immigration laws."

At the INS, deputy commissioner Ricardo Inzunza argues that the question is moot. After June 30, Salvadorans will have a 90-day window of opportunity to apply for political asylum, allowing them to remain in the country for their hearings, which could take a couple of years. So, in effect, they will get their extension anyway.

Refugee advocates agree with that scenario, but counter that throwing upwards of 300,000 Salvadorans into limbo after June 30 creates the wrong dynamic. Legal aid services will not be able to cope with the surge of immigrants needing help, they say.

Salaverria argues further that "doing things under the law makes people behave more responsibly."

Another potential pitfall for Salvadorans staying here under a status of "deportation hearing pending" is that employers may be less willing to keep them on the job or hire them in the first place. This argument, however, is likely not to move the American public during a recession.

Moakley aide Jim McGovern is concerned that, faced with this deportation notification, Salvadorans in the TPS program will either "go underground" to escape the INS or simply head back to El Salvador. Another concern is that Salvadorans who do want eventually to return to El Salvador will not apply for asylum here, thinking that it means they won't ever go home.

Last September, Salvadoran immigrants around the US formed the Salvadoran National Network both to push for an extension of TPS - they are writing letters to the attorney general - and to educate their community here about their rights.

"We believe the US should help us rebuild our country, which means letting us stay here," says network director Boris Canjura. Prospects

Sabina Gonzalez volunteers every day at Caracen, a legal aid service here, to help Salvadorans understand what's happening with TPS. She has the time because she has only four hours of cleaning work a day, earning $5 a hour. Her English is poor.

As for her own prospects with the immigration judge, Gonzalez expresses an almost innocent faith that the judge will be sympathetic to her continuing fears of persecution even though a peace treaty has been signed.

"Just because the war is 'over, she says, "the human rights violations won't end. The judge will understand. I mean, the judge will have to understand."

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