Immigrant rights groups in Los Angeles and across the country are gearing up for a new law that will make hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans eligible for temporary safe haven.
Under a landmark immigration bill passed by Congress in October, Salvadorans who are in the United States illegally and who have not been able to qualify for hard-to-get political asylum will, for the first time, be able to gain temporary legal status and avoid deportation.
Also for the first time, they will be able to work legally.
The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, is expected to have a major impact in Southern California, home to the largest concentration of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador.
Both advocates and immigration agents alike are bracing for what many think will become an onslaught of applicants for the new status.
"We expect to be overwhelmed," said Madeline Janis, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Central American Refugee Center. "We expect the whole nature of our work to change because of this."
The legislation offers an 18-month period of safe haven to Salvadorans who can prove their nationality and who can demonstrate they arrived in the United States before Sept. 19, 1990. Applicants must sign up between Jan. 1 and June 30 and will be charged a fee, yet to be determined by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which will administer the program.
Salvadorans who have been convicted of a felony or of two misdemeanors are not eligible.
As part of their new legal recognition, eligible Salvadorans are to be given work permits that will allow them to emerge from what has been a largely underground existence. The permits must be renewed every six months for the 18-month period.
At the end of 18 months, the attorney general's office is to decide whether to extend the program.
The safe haven element, the hard-fought, controversial work of Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), is remarkable because it represents a reversal in decade-old U.S. policy. It singles out Salvadorans, whose home country is torn by civil war, as a people who deserve to be granted temporary refuge--something successive Republican administrations that support the Salvadoran government have resisted for years.
In Los Angeles, advocates who work with refugees are scrambling to promote the new program and educate the public about its advantages--and its risks.
The Central American Refugee Center and similar groups are meeting weekly with staff members and volunteers to school them in the details of the program.
INS agents are also making preparations. Duke Austin, INS spokesman in Washington, D.C., warned that offering the new program means putting additional strains on an already taxed agency with a huge backlog of other immigration cases. In places such as Los Angeles, he said, long lines are to be expected.
"It will be another burden, one that we will have to accomplish on a thinning resource," Austin said. "I still think we can do a good job but . . . I'm sure there will be problems, delays."
Because the law only offers 18 months of protection, advocates are cautioning Salvadoran applicants not to expect miracles. For some Salvadorans, the fact that they have to register with the INS to obtain the benefit may outweigh the advantages. If the protection is not renewed after 18 months, the INS could proceed with deportation proceedings.
Advocates meanwhile express concern that some unscrupulous attorneys or notary publics, hoping to make a buck, may try to advertise the program as an "Amnesty for Salvadorans" along the lines of the 1986 amnesty program. That program offered permanent legal status to foreigners who had been in the United States continuously prior to 1982 and has applied most widely to Mexicans.
"We want to be sure people understand what they are applying for," said Linda Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles. "It's not an amnesty program. It's not a legalization program. It's a temporary safe haven program. It may not be for everyone."
Nevertheless, Mitchell added, she expected Salvadorans to apply "left and right" for the new status, because it offers something many see as golden: legitimate work papers.
Able to seek employment legally, many Salvadorans will be able to emerge from the shadows and take better-paying jobs with normal benefits, Mitchell and others said. Until now, undocumented Salvadorans often risked being exploited, forced to accept the dregs of jobs and housing.
Janis said the Central American Refugee Center, which spends much of its time pressing asylum cases and working to get detainees released, will now shift its attention to educating Salvadorans on their new-found rights.
As a result of the law, hundreds of Salvadorans in INS custody for entering the country illegally are expected to be released, according to INS spokesman Verne Jervis.
Although exact numbers are hard to come by, an estimated 400,000 Salvadorans are believed to be living in Southern California.