Hard to remember, at times, that Thanksgiving is a survival story. Maybe it can be best appreciated by newcomers, whether the newcomers are 17th-Century Pilgrims from England or 20th-Century illegal aliens from Latin America. Having survived a difficult crossing and precarious adjustment to their new country, they pause to celebrate their survival, give thanks and look toward the future.
This year, among those allowing themselves to look forward with hope and a new, if shaky, sense of security are those people who have reason to believe the newly passed immigration reforms, offering amnesty to those who have resided here since 1982 and meet other qualifications, will apply to them. Following are two such families, one from El Salvador, the other from Mexico.
Last year, on Aug. 15, Hilda Serrano was picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol shortly after she had crossed into this country on foot near San Ysidro. She had been living in Los Angeles since 1977, having arrived then from El Salvador the same way without being caught. In 1980 her two children, Elvin and Patricia, now 15 and 10, had joined her.
They were illegal aliens, here without passports, papers or green cards, living undetected--Hilda working as a domestic and caring for other people's children once her money ran out, her children attending school.
Detained on Return Trip
Then in 1985, she returned to El Salvador for a brief visit to her ailing mother, leaving her children with family friends. It was on her return trip that she was detained.
The authorities held her for the weekend, then released her on her own recognizance. Since then, with the help of her lawyer, Lee O'Connor at the National Center for Immigrants Rights Inc., she has requested asylum, claiming her life would be in danger in El Salvador because, according to her sworn declaration, her husband was kidnaped and murdered by security forces in El Salvador in 1980. In deportation proceedings now, a trial on the merits of the case, originally set for September, then October, was postponed until next June, largely, O'Connor said, because she may qualify for amnesty in May under the new law.
They have already received a favorable response from the State Department on the merits of the case. Her request for asylum should go well, O'Connor said. Should , nevertheless, is a word that carries no certainty. Thus, Hilda Serrano will apply for amnesty and be happy to get that. No one is saying for sure that either asylum or amnesty will be granted, but it is reasonable to expect, people conversant with her situation agree, that one or the other will come through.
On the Eve of Marriage
Last week, on the eve of her marriage to Florencio Avila, a Salvadoran here legally, she came with her children and fiance to her lawyer's office, and talked about her situation and the new law.
A well-groomed, poised-looking woman in her mid-30s with a ready laugh and sense of well-being about her, she described the events of the past years with her lawyer serving as interpreter. In every sense it seemed like a different world she was describing.
She fled El Salvador in 1977, by mutual agreement with her husband, whose life seemed to be in danger. Earlier he had worked for law enforcement agencies of the national government, then had left to go into business for himself. The combination of access to information his past work had given him and of his involvement with a politically active professional organization made him, she thinks, a suspect.
He was nervous. He was being followed. Their house was under surveillance. He started sleeping with a gun and bought one for her. They agreed she would come to the United States, get settled and send for the children if need be. In the meantime, the children would stay with their grandmother.
Hilda Serrano entered this country with a handbag, some money and no other possessions. She stayed with relatives in Santa Monica and only after her money ran out did she start doing domestic work. In San Salvador she had managed a little tienda , or store, and never worked for someone else. It all seemed temporary, she said--she would be going back.
She and her husband never corresponded, she said, reacting strongly to the thought of putting pen to paper. Letters were much too dangerous. They talked on the telephone, and then in code.
That is how their last conversation transpired, when he told her, "OK, I'm sending you one pair of pants and a skirt. Wait for them," by which she knew her son and daughter were on the way. They were, in fact, en route when word reached Hilda that her husband had been killed.
When they arrived, she said, it was a turning point for her. She realized her life would probably be here. There would be no going back.
From such a dangerous and shaky entry into this country, a family has emerged full of hopes and ambitions.