Effort helps Salvadorans extend their U.S. residency

Workers stay to aid family, rebuild native country

September 01, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Mauricio Vargas was afraid to return to his wife and two young children in El Salvador.

Not because he didn't miss them, but because the Silver Spring resident was worried he couldn't take care of them.

"The economy, the state of the country, is terrible right now," he said in Spanish. "It would be harder to give them a good life."

But after filling out a few forms and getting his photograph taken yesterday in Columbia, Vargas' worries subsided, at least temporarily. The 35-year-old pizza delivery man signed up for a "temporary protected status" extension, which will allow him to remain in the United States legally for another year.

Nearly 260,000 Salvadorans nationwide are eligible for such an extension. The program began last year, when the U.S. Justice Department program gave Salvadorans an 18-month legal residency because of two earthquakes that struck their country in January and February 2001, killing more than 1,200 people and causing more than $2 billion in damage.

The government hoped that the Salvadorans in the United States would send part of their earnings back to their country and would speed the rebuilding process.

The program was due to expire this month before the government announced the extension in July.

For immigrants such as Vargas, the extension is a precious, yet painful, window of opportunity. It's a chance to stay in America and earn more money, part of which they can send home to El Salvador to help rebuild their country. It also means that they have an extra year to try to get U.S. citizenship, which would allow them to bring their families to the United States.

But it also means another year apart from wives, parents and children. Vargas hasn't seen his family for almost 2 1/2 years, a thought that sends a shadow across his normally smiling face.

"My 6-year-old remembers me a little bit ... but my 3-year-old, I don't think he knows me very well," he said.

Immigrant groups throughout the country have been holding extension sign-up days since July. At the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center yesterday, about 200 people went through the process, event organizers said.

At Centro de La Comunidad, a Baltimore organization, about 400 people have signed up for the extension, according to Nancy Alexandrou, the group's immigration and legal coordinator.

While some immigrants were reluctant to sign up because they feared the government would use the information to deport them later, experts say, most Salvadorans are willing to take the chance if it means they can spend more time in the United States.

In 1997, Congress relaxed citizenship restrictions for Central American refugees, including those from El Salvador, who came to the United States during the mid-1980s because of civil wars in their countries.

"Why not take the chance and register, because you might eventually turn it into a green card," Alexandrou said.

That's what Vargas hopes will happen. He left his home in the northern city of Apopa in 1999 because he was not making enough money as a welder to support his wife and children. After spending two years working in the United States, he had bought a return ticket to El Salvador last year before the earthquakes struck.

"My wife and I talked about it and decided it would be best if I stayed here, where I could earn more," he said.

Since then, Vargas has taken English classes and has a job delivering food for Pizza Hut. He communicates with his family by phone or by sending videotapes. He also has decided that life in the United States would be better for his family.

On a typical night, Vargas said, he brings home $80, while his wife, Lucia, makes $10 on a good day of selling clothes in El Salvador.

Oscar Mejia, a 25-year-old Long Reach resident who also filled out his extension papers yesterday, agrees. Mejia arrived in the United States about three years ago to help support his parents, who live in the village of Ahuachapan.

Mejia worked in fields in El Salvador, clearing vegetation with a machete, and earning $5 a day, he estimated. In the United States, he could earn $9 an hour as a landscaper.

"It helps my [parents] pay the rent, pay their bills," he said. "Someday, maybe we can buy them a [house] or bring them here to the United States."

Not everyone is pleased about the program extension.

"How long can this temporary status go on?" asked Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington group that favors a more restrictive immigration policy.

Stein and others argue that the longer Salvadorans stay in the country, the less likely they are to return home. Furthermore, they say, the wave of immigration is hindering El Salvador's recovery efforts.

"When thousands flee with the intention of never returning, the rebuilding can't take place ... because there's no one to do the work," said John Keeley, a research associate at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which also favors stricter immigrant controls.

The extension will last for a year, and the government has issued no promises of future extensions. While Vargas hopes the U.S. government will offer another extension, he said, he will not spend too much time thinking about the future.

"Right now, my first priority is to take care of my family," he said. "I hope that the government will come to some type of agreement, but I won't worry about it too much."

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