Salvadoran residents and activists are praising the Clinton Administration for its 18-month extension of the Deferred Enforced Departure program, which gives 200,000 Salvadorans the right to legally live and work in the United States.
Trinidad Gonzalez, a 28-year-old Salvadoran factory worker who came to Los Angeles in 1990, said the extension was necessary so that Salvadorans would not be forced to return to a homeland racked by political and economic instability.
"Personally I've been afraid that the INS would deport us," said Gonzalez during a Tuesday news conference at the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) in Pico-Union. "There is nothing to return to in El Salvador. At least here we have the opportunity to work and send money to our families."
The community reaction came after a May 21 letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters in Washington announcing the extension of the act that was signed into law last summer by President George Bush.
Eligible Salvadorans have until June 30 to register for the extension.
Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington, said the agency is preparing a statement but had no comment last week.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington based anti-immigration group, condemned the move.
"We are disappointed by this," said Ira Mehlman, a federation spokesman. "It confirms that all the so-called temporary programs inevitably turn out to be permanent. The war in El Salvador has been over for more than a year. The intent of (the program) was for these people to stay while there was a war going on. If we waited for everything to be perfect in El Salvador, those people would be here forever."
In a 1992 survey of the 14,000 Salvadorans who signed up for the Deferred Enforced Departure program at the CARECEN offices, 70% said they did not plan to return to El Salvador.
The program was designed to provide a haven to Salvadoran refugees fleeing a 12-year civil war that killed more than 70,000 civilians. According to CARECEN, 74,000 of the 400,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles who registered under the program are eligible.
"This is not only a victory for the Salvadoran community, it is a victory for the United States and for El Salvador," Roberto Lovato, the executive director of CARECEN, said during the news conference.
The extension followed a May 20 demonstration by the former rebel forces and Salvadoran Armed Forces veterans in San Salvador. During the protest to call for the establishment of a protection fund for disabled war veterans, Salvadoran National Police opened fire, killing three demonstrators.
"Salvadorans have demonstrated that they are very productive and have contributed positively to the society of both countries," Lovato said. "We lament that the president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, has not been able to create the conditions for Salvadorans to return."
Those eligible for the extension can register at CARECEN, 668 S. Bonnie Brae St. in Pico-Union or call the INS district office in Bellflower at (310) 804-2508. The deadline is June 30. Amilcar Martinez of CARECEN said there is a $60 fee for applicants who are older than 14 who want work permits.
Salvadoran refugees who gained political asylum through the Temporary Protected Status program can also obtain work permits through the extension program, Martinez said.
Information: CARECEN at (213) 483-6868.