The letters Juan Diosdado and Dionicio Salazar keep in their wallets are old and tattered, folded and refolded so many times that the paper is worn at the creases. For the two Mexicans and their families the form letters are artifacts of frustration, frayed pieces of hope.
The documents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service are known as Silva letters. For Diosdado, Salazar and perhaps as many as 100,000 others who have these documents--including about 60,000 in Los Angeles and Southern California--this letter once offered the prospect of permanent legal residence in this country. For many years, because of a complex legal case involving immigration quotas, it was at least a reprieve from the threat of deportation. Now it is potentially a one-way ticket out of the country.
The Diosdados and Salazars probably are typical of Silva letter holders who have yet to gain legal status in this country. Both families have lived here more than 10 years. Juan, 38, works as a truck driver and his wife, Maria, 40, is employed by a garment manufacturer. Three of their six children--the oldest is 16--were born in this country and thus are citizens, eligible to remain here should their parents be deported.
Disabled by a back problem, Dionicio, 62, and his wife Maria, 55, are mostly supported by their working-age children, the couple said. They have 11 children, ages 9 to 32. One was born in this country. The Dionicios came here, they said, mainly because they believed their children would get a better education. However, one was denied a scholarship and another was not allowed to join the Marine Corps because they are not legal residents.
These days the Diosdados said they "feel desperate" and frozen in place. They have not seen their parents in Mexico for eight years, they said in an interview, because they are afraid to cross the border.
Furthermore, the Diosdados said they feel especially vulnerable because they complied with the paper work originally required of Silva applicants. In a sense, they are documented, they said, and federal authorities could locate them by the trail of forms they have voluntarily filed. These statements were echoed by the Salazars, whose parents have died since they came to Southern California from Guadalajara.
In fact, the Silva letter has become a powerful symbol of the political and social complexities of the immigration issue. The arguments that have raged for years around the Silva letter holders are illustrations of the ambivalence in the United States toward immigration reform and the millions who have sought political and economic refuge here in recent years.
These ambivalent attitudes were displayed in an exchange of letters in the Los Angeles Times last year. Julie Parker of Altadena wrote that Silva letter holders, such as a family she knew who owned a home, paid taxes and had children who had never been to Mexico, were "in an especially unjust situation" after the husband was detained by immigration authorities.
William Winther of La Puente replied: "What is so terrible about returning Mexican citizens to their homeland after their entrance agreement has expired? . . . There are only so many jobs and homes available. These jobs should go to our own good citizens, millions of whom are unemployed."
Now the Silva issue is surfacing yet again. Popkin, Shamir & Golan, a Los Angeles law firm that specializes in immigration law, has formed the Committee for the Legalization of Silva Applicants to lobby for the group. The firm, whose partners include former immigrants, says it is seeking to give the Silva applicants--traditionally fragmented and submerged in their ethnic groups--a voice of their own.
Among other things, the firm maintains it is time to consider the Silva people as a special case rather than wait for passage of a blanket immigration reform bill. So far, the committee has located, through stories run in the Spanish-language press, about 450 Silva applicants, including the Diosdados and the Dionicios.
Like Unwelcome Guests
Over the years many other organizations, including the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles, have been involved in the Silva case and none has found the key of welcome. Moreover, the Silva letter holders have never been given special consideration in any immigration legislation--a common tactic when potential immigrants are caught in a legal snare.
This is once more the case in two new immigration reform bills introduced by California Reps. Ed Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach) this year, both of which rely on the blanket amnesty approach to long-term illegal residents to deal with Silva-type problems, spokesmen for the two say. For the moment at least, it seems that little action on the congressional front can be expected. Final assignments to both the House and Senate immigration committees, which would take initial action on any immigration matter, have not been made for this session.