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Few Salvadorans Here Plan Return to Homeland Soon


The 400,000-strong Salvadoran community of Los Angeles rejoiced last month at the signing of the Salvadoran peace accords but few are planning a quick return to a homeland ravaged by the decade-long war.

Local Salvadorans view the next few months as a key period to determine whether the promises for democracy and structural changes outlined in the peace agreement will be carried through.

Many of those who moved to Southern California have established themselves after years of struggle. But staying in this country might become a new struggle for thousands of Salvadorans who are wondering whether their immigration status will change.

"My family is here, so is my life," said Patricia de Leon, 17, who has lived in the Southland for the last two years with her brother, sister and parents. "If they deport us, what will we do?" the high school senior asked.

Along with 200,000 other Salvadorans nationwide, De Leon's father has continued his stay in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status program. Known as TPS, the program was authorized under the 1990 Immigration Act and gave permission for Salvadorans to stay in this country for up to 18 months. To get the temporary safe haven, applicants had to prove their Salvadoran nationality and that they had arrived in the United States before Sept. 19, 1990.

But that program is scheduled to expire on June 30 and U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr is not expected to announce until May whether it will be renewed. For Salvadorans protected under the law, the wait could prove painful.

Although Rosa Iglesias has been in the United States for 15 years, she said she has obtained legal immigration status only through the implementation of TPS. If she is not granted the extension, Iglesias said, she will find any means necessary to stay in this country.

"I am here to live, por los ninos ," she said, pointing to her three children, all born in Los Angeles and ranging in ages from 8 to 12. "I wouldn't be able to raise them in El Salvador. I could not get a job there. We have a better life here."

On the day of the historic signing last month, Iglesias, an employee at a dry cleaners, and her children were at El Rescate, a refugee assistance center, filing an application to extend her TPS work permit. Under the law, work permits must be renewed every six months at a cost of $60 for processing.

However, on Friday, a federal judge is expected to sign a settlement that would reduce the processing fee to $20. The reduction is the result of a settlement from a lawsuit that the Central American Refugee Center brought against the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service last year, said Madeline Janis, CARECEN executive director.

CARECEN, based in the Central American district of Pico-Union, accused the INS of failing to grant fee waivers and of charging an excessive amount from TPS applicants. "It's important that people keep up their status by renewing their permit," Janis said. "And they will have to pay only one-third of what it cost them before."

If the program is not renewed this June, agencies that have long served the Salvadoran community are urging those with TPS status to request political asylum under a landmark class-action suit, American Baptist Churches vs. (former Atty. Gen.) Richard Thornburgh, known commonly by refugee rights advocates as the ABC program.

The case, settled in January, 1991, forced the federal government to reconsider tens of thousands of cases involving Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals who had been denied political asylum. Critics had charged that the INS discriminated against political asylum applicants from countries with pro-U.S. governments.

The agencies are now focusing their energies on getting TPS extended for an additional 18 months. Groups are organizing into a national network to lobby the attorney general's office, Congress and President Bush to extend the sanctuary.

"Sending back so many people is like sending a bomb," said Jorge Ruiz, TPS coordinator for El Rescate. "If the President of the United States wishes to ensure peace in El Salvador," he added, "the best way to demonstrate his dedication is to extend TPS."

Forcing thousands of Salvadorans to return immediately could further cripple the economy of the Central American nation. More than one-third of its economy depends on money sent home from family members abroad.

"Refugee aid is . . . even bigger than the U.S. economic aid to the country," said Oscar Andrade, executive director of El Rescate. "That is key toward the reconstruction. Deporting them would be like sending them to a refugee camp."

Informal surveys recently conducted by local agencies indicate that more than 60% of Salvadorans based in the Southland are not interested in returning to live in their homeland. Others, such as Rosalina Montenegro, a local resident for 20 years, said they do want to return. "My sons want me to become a (U.S.) citizen, but I say no," Montenegro said. "I want to return someday."

Many Salvadorans, however, say they can do more for the future of their homeland by staying here.

"The work here is not over," said Ricardo Zelada, a 15-year Los Angeles resident. "We will continue to work for solidarity for the Salvadoran people . . . and fund raising to continue sending money to help our people over there."

Zelada and his wife raised money to send to El Salvador by selling tamales at a Jan. 19 Salvadoran peace celebration held at MacArthur Park that was attended by about 4,000 people. Father Luis Olivares, who in 1985 declared his La Placita Church a sanctuary for Central American refugees, made an emotional appearance, appealing to the crowd "to continue to work for peace in El Salvador."

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