Born at the start of the bloody Salvadoran civil war, Romel Tovar was brought to the San Fernando Valley by his grandmother when he was 6. Today, he is a thoroughly assimilated, freshman scholarship student at exclusive Middlebury College in Vermont.
He also faces deportation.
Tovar, 18, is one of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who remain in legal limbo years after their arrival in the United States. For them, the new immigration law is a crushing blow.
Concentrated in Southern California, more than 300,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans are awaiting adjudication of political asylum petitions that in most cases have been pending for years.
Long-delayed interviews with asylum officers are finally scheduled to start next month. But experts say the end of the civil wars at home probably mean that relatively few will prevail.
Advocates have held out the hope that immigration judges will allow most to remain under "hardship" exceptions to deportation for longtime residents. Many now have U.S.-born children and have been living with provisional legal status in the United States since at least 1990 and are protected by a federal court settlement.
But the new law drastically limits such hardship waivers, casting a pall of uncertainty and raising the specter of large-scale deportations. Community representatives vow to fight on, seeking a reprieve from Congress and the Clinton administration.
However, activists pushing to limit immigration have likewise vowed to resist any special "fix" for Central Americans. And the charged political climate surrounding immigration would seem to rule out a deal.
In tranquil, late-winter Vermont, Tovar prepares for a deportation hearing in Los Angeles on March 19. His lawyer withdrew his asylum claim and surrendered him, gambling that Tovar would have a better shot at a hardship grant before strict provisions of the new law take effect April 1.
"Nothing in my everyday environment reminds me that I'm an immigrant from El Salvador--except for this case," said Tovar, whose family here includes the Rosenfelds, who have helped rear him. "Besides that, I'm a regular American kid."