Calling All Salvadorans
On Deadline, Country Pushes U.S. Work Permits
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Blanca Rodriguez, 28, a teacher's aide, arrived at her home in the Maryland
suburbs recently to find an unexpected voice on her answering machine.
It was the
president of El Salvador -- calling her and hundreds of thousands of other Salvadoran immigrants.
"I was so surprised. There was no explanation of how he got my number," said the Burtonsville resident.
The recorded message from President Francisco Flores was part of an
unprecedented campaign by the Salvadoran government urging immigrants to
meet a deadline
tomorrow to extend U.S. work permits they received through an emergency program.
The campaign reflects how poor countries increasingly view immigrants
in places such as Washington or Los Angeles as crucial to their own development.
Salvadorans send home to their families almost $2 billion each year from the United States.
"We are the first government in the world . . . to do half a million
calls" to its citizens in the United States, said Salvadoran Ambassador
Rene Leon, who has pursued
a frenetic travel schedule in recent weeks, from Los Angeles to Boston to Dallas, to inform Salvadorans about the deadline.
"We are pioneers, with other governments like Mexico, in doing community
diplomacy," he added, focusing as much on places like Falls Church as on
The Bush administration granted temporary protected status (TPS) to
many Salvadorans in March 2001, arguing that they should be allowed to
stay here and work
legally because their country had just been shattered by two earthquakes.
About 278,000 applied in the first round of the program ending in September,
roughly one-third of them from the Washington area, Leon said. The program
open only to people who had arrived before mid-February 2001.
Now, the U.S. government is allowing those Salvadorans to register for
a one-year extension. To spread that message, the Salvadoran government
directly into homes here -- a sign of how politics is stretching beyond borders as immigration increases.
Maria Lopez, 24, flipped on Spanish-language TV at her home in Arlington
recently to find Flores appealing to immigrants to re-register for the
"It's interesting. He really knows what's going on here," said a surprised Lopez.
El Salvador's campaign has gone well beyond TV ads. Videos shown on
its national airline, TACA, describe the work-permit program so that travelers
their relatives. In the United States, workers have handed out letters from the Salvadoran president at soccer games and at parties held to help immigrants
In the most ambitious initiative, the long-distance phone company Americatel
agreed to send a recorded message from the Salvadoran president into the
750,000 U.S. clients in its database who had called El Salvador, Leon said. Two-thirds of them picked up the calls, the ambassador said.
"Many Salvadorans have told me, with great emotion, that they had received
a call from the president," Leon said. "They didn't know how President
their phone number."
Programs like the TPS for Salvadorans have been criticized by opponents of large-scale immigration, who note they often lead to permanent stays.
But the programs have meant a new life for many who previously lived
in the shadows. Job prospects for illegal immigrants have become increasingly
bleak since the
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with more employers insisting on proper immigration documents.
"It helps you advance a lot," said Lopez, who sneaked into the United
States four years ago to escape poverty back home. Thanks to the work permit,
from a restaurant job, where she got paid under the table, to a hotel housekeeping job, where she makes $2 more an hour and receives benefits -- increasingly
important now that she has a baby.
Lopez was part of a stream of Salvadorans signing up for their new permits
on Friday at the Falls Church office of the Hispanic Committee of Virginia.
immigrants ran the gamut from an engineer to an illiterate peasant. Some had arrived in the United States as recently as December 2000; others, like Ana Amaya of
Alexandria, had become thoroughly Americanized. She came with her parents 15 years ago, when she was 12.
"I don't know El Salvador," Amaya said.
Immigrant-assistance groups in the Washington area have been working
overtime helping Salvadorans re-register, with many opening their offices
today, a federal
holiday, to beat the deadline.
Such groups, as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have praised the Salvadoran government's outreach to its citizens here.
"It's a day-and-night change," said Saul Solorzano, executive director of the CARECEN immigrant-services agency in Columbia Heights.
He recalled meeting with the Salvadoran ambassador in the early 1990s,
after the U.S. government offered its first TPS program for Salvadorans
who had fled
during their country's civil war. At the time, Salvadoran officials were insisting that conditions in their country were fine, Solorzano recalled.
The ambassador "was calling me a subversive because I was trying to
get his support for an extension of TPS," Solorzano said. "Now, they have
the need for
remittances. They understand it's a big advantage for El Salvador for people to have this status."
Leon, the current ambassador, insists this is not all about the immigrants'
money. Migration from his country has been so dramatic that about one-quarter
Salvadorans now live in the United States, he said. He added that he is just serving his fellow citizens.
"Salvadorans who live here are part of our country," he said.
So far, the campaign appears successful. Leon estimated last week that
only about 10 to 15 percent of those with TPS permits had not requested
of them were immigrants who had signed up toward the end of the first registration period and hadn't yet gotten their initial permit, he said.
The Salvadoran government has asked President Bush to allow such people to re-register after the deadline.
That is not the only wrinkle in the campaign.
At least a few Salvadoran immigrants are miffed about the calls from
the country's president. After years in the United States, they have become
as their neighbors here.
Rodriguez, for example, is a U.S. permanent resident and thus doesn't
need the TPS work permit. She fears that politicians from El Salvador will
continue to send
messages to her phone as that country's legislative elections approach.
"I thought, being here, they'd leave me in peace," she said.