Salvadorans Find Measure of Safety
Unexpected Number of Illegal Residents Apply for Protected Status
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
About a quarter-million Salvadorans in Washington and other parts of
the country have deluged immigration authorities with applications for
a program that allows
them to live and work temporarily in the United States, far exceeding expectations, officials said yesterday.
Thanks to the program, known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, the vast majority of Salvadorans living in the United States now have legal status.
And not a moment too soon, say Salvadoran officials and immigrant-aid
groups. Fearing a clampdown on illegal immigrants after the Sept. 11 terrorist
employers have become more wary about hiring workers lacking proper documentation.
"It means a lot to El Salvador," said Rene Leon, that country's ambassador
to the United States. "It provides a Salvadoran [with] flexibility to seek
another job if he
has lost his job because of the crisis in the U.S. economy."
President Bush approved the special protection in March as a way to
help El Salvador after two devastating earthquakes. The program allows
have been in the United States since mid-February to apply for work permits lasting until September 2002. Money sent home by immigrants is key to El Salvador's
Advocates of reduced immigration criticize such temporary programs, saying they are amnesties in disguise.
But for those who benefit, the program is a ticket to a new life.
"Now I don't feel fear. I work freely, without being nervous," said
Mirian Flores, 22, who was in the kitchen at the Atlacatl restaurant in
Arlington one recent night
preparing Mexican and Salvadoran dishes.
The petite cook, swathed in a white plastic apron and hairnet, pressed
a carrot into a grinder. For two years, since she had sneaked into the
country, she worried
constantly about being picked up by immigration authorities, she said. Every trip outside the house felt like a risk.
"I didn't go out much -- just to work. I was afraid," she said. But
with the work permit, a burden has suddenly been lifted. "I go wherever
I want, without fear. I go to
my friends' houses. I come to the restaurant on my day off. I go to the park."
The Immigration and Naturalization Service had initially predicted that
150,000 Salvadorans would seek the benefit. But as of yesterday, about
250,000 had applied,
INS spokesman Dan Kane said. Most have already received their work permits.
Kane said the INS had not realized that so many Salvadorans had immigrated illegally.
Local immigrant-assistance groups were not surprised that the program
has been so popular. As soon as it was announced, the agencies were overwhelmed
Salvadorans seeking help with their applications. Leon estimated 20 percent of those benefiting from the program live in the Washington area.
"We have had an enormous response," said Silvia Alber, an immigration
lawyer at the Spanish Catholic Center in the District. Although the flood
planning to apply for the program has slowed to a trickle, some are still turning up, she said.
"Considering how things are going in immigration, all those who did
not apply before are coming, because they know they are protected from
deportation" under the
benefit, Alber said. There is no deadline for applications.
Salvadoran workers are expected to send home a record $1.9 billion this
year, said Leon, who has actively promoted the program among immigrants.
That's up from
$1.7 billion last year -- the equivalent of 13 percent of the country's economic output.
Much of the money arrives in small transfers, like the $200 a month
sent by Esmeralda Fuentes, 25, another Salvadoran who works at Atlacatl
and who supports her
"They're poor -- they have no help," she said.
What will she do when the temporary protection program ends in September? Fuentes paused, surprised. "Can you renew or not? I don't know," she shrugged.
In fact, many Salvadorans who applied for a similar benefit in 1991
have managed to stay here through a series of extensions, and some have
permanent residents. That irritates critics, who say that the program rewards those who arrived illegally.
"The 'T' in TPS is a charade. Applicants never really have to go home,"
said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration
Washington group favoring reduced immigration.
Before the program began, about 350,000 to 400,000 of the estimated
800,000 Salvadorans in the country were undocumented, said Jeffrey S. Passel,
demographer at the Urban Institute. Now, the number will shrink to a small minority -- at least until September.