WHEN Congress granted Salvadoran refugees an 18-month stay of deportation from the United States last year, immigrant-rights groups achieved a victory in their 10-year struggle to gain protection for people fleeing that war-torn country. But with fewer than five weeks remaining in the six-month registration period, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials say only 70,000 Salvadorans have applied for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). That figure represents 15 percent to 20 percent of the 300,000 to 500,000 Salvadorans estimated to be eligible for the program.
Refugee rights groups blame the low turnout on high registration fees and the fear among many Salvadorans that giving personal information to the INS will speed deportations once the 18-month period has expired.
"Eighteen months is a very short time," is a frequent comment by applicants, said Richard Garcia, director of the Centro de Asuntos Migratorios in San Diego.
"Our major concern is that extension of the 18-month period is not linked to a review of conditions in El Salvador," Mr. Garcia said.
According to Garcia and others, the TPS sponsor, US Rep. Joe Moakley (D) of Massachusetts, had to promise not to introduce legislation calling for an extension of the 18-month period in order to get TPS through Congress.
An aide to Representative Moakley, however, says he expects Attorney General Richard Thornburgh to extend Temporary Protected Status if the Salvadoran war is still going on when the 18-month period expires.
"If the attorney general blatantly disregards the facts, we don't have to honor our pledge" not to request an extension, says Moakley aide Jim McGovern.
Moakley has already called for an extension of the registration deadline, from June 30, 1991, to Oct. 31, 1991. The representative recently argued before a House subcommittee that administrative delays and confusion prevented prompt implementation of the TPS program, and that Salvadorans should be given every opportunity to register.
INS spokesman Duke Austin disagrees. "Extending the deadline may end up being a budgetary responsibility if the flow of applicants doesn't increase, and it sends the signal that procrastination is all right," Mr. Austin argues.
US Immigration officials expect a rush of last-minute applications to increase the number of TPS registrants to between 100,000 and 150,000 by the June 30 deadline.
Yet, for many Salvadorans, the problem with TPS is not so much the June 30 deadline or the short amnesty period but the registration fees. Ana Ruth Solito came to the US after her husband was disappeared in 1981. Although eligible for TPS, she barely ekes out a living making and selling burritos in Tucson, Ariz., and could not afford the $75 TPS registration and $60 work-permit fees.
Before May 15, TPS registration and work permits had to be renewed every six months and the fees paid each time. That meant that a family of four would have to pay $1,320 for 18 months of amnesty.
The INS insisted such fees were necessary in order to make the program pay for itself, but after numerous complaints from members of Congress and immigrant-rights groups, it cut the registration fee to a one-time $75 charge per person, and set a cap of $225 for families.
The work-permit fee was raised to $60. Permits still must be renewed every six months, but they are no longer required for TPS registration.
Nevertheless, Ms. Solito still could not afford the fees for herself and her daughter. The Tucson Ecumenical Council Legal Aid (TECLA) office raised money from local churches for her and a dozen other clients who could not pay. TECLA has also obtained fee waivers for children of some clients.
"We're a little reluctant to ask the INS for fee waivers," said TECLA attorney Valerie Hink, "because it opens people to being called 'public charges,' which could later be grounds for denial of permanent residency status."
Despite the uncertainty, TECLA and other advocacy groups are, for the most part, counseling clients to apply for TPS.
Solito shrugs and says, "It's better to have a guarantee of 18 months than nothing."
A complicating factor is a settlement reached last year in American Baptist Churches et al. v. Thornburgh, in which the Immigration and Naturalization Service agreed to readjudicate all denied political-asylum claims filed by Salvadorans since 1980.
Salvadorans registering for Temporary Protected Status are automatically included in the settlement, which means that after the 18-month TPS period ends, their deportations would be delayed at least as long as it takes for their asylum claims to be reviewed.
Advocates hope that, by then, either the situation in El Salvador will have improved or the US government will have changed its position regarding deportation of war refugees.