Stay or Go?

At a Salvadoran diner in Bellaire, where extravagant soccer trophies on the counter compete with photos of Salvadoran volcanos on the walls, a 45-year-old cook who calls herself just Esperanza dices black clams and wonders about her future. Like many of Houston's Salvadorans, Esperanza feared she was only a few weeks away from possibly being forced to return to El Salvador when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service decided to extend a special short-term residency permit. And while Esperanza is grateful she won't face deportation at the end of the month, she still worries that her difficulties haven't been resolved, but simply pushed off until next fall.

Esperanza is one of tens of thousands of Salvadorans who fled their country for the United States during El Salvador's long and grisly civil war. Many ended up in Houston, which has the second largest Salvadoran population in America, and many have been living in the States on a short-term permit given in 1990. A belated admission that wartime El Salvador was unlivable for just about everyone, the permit was changed and extended once under President Bush, and then again under President Clinton. On December 2, though, U.S. immigration officials declared the Deferred Enforced Departure status (DED) expired. Since El Salvador's war ended in 1992, the INS concluded that the country was once again safe for return -- although others point out that El Salvador remains plagued by high crime, unemployment and unresolved disputes left over from the war years.

"The thinking behind ending DED is that conditions in El Salvador have improved, making it definitely a different scenario from four or five years ago," says Houston INS spokeswomen Mariela Melero. At the same time, however, the INS granted Salvadorans a nine-month grace period and encouraged them to reapply for asylum under the ABC program, so named for a suit in which the Supreme Court decided that Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants had been systematically denied refuge.

But while welcoming the grace period, Salvadoran advocates insist it isn't enough. "In 1990, the INS finally said, 'We don't think you're politically persecuted, but we're going to give you temporary protective status because of the damage created by the war,'" says immigration attorney Joseph Vail. "That situation hasn't changed. That country is still demolished."

U.S. law grants asylum to anyone who can prove fear of persecution based on race, nationality, religion or membership in social and political groups. It's a broad standard, but also a tough one for Houston's Salvadorans to meet now that their civil war is over. But while the country has a new Supreme Court and a new civilian police force, ex-guerrilla leaders and right-wing leaders are gunned down every few months; crime has soared; and both the right- and left-wing parties are in acute turmoil.

The question of what position the INS should take in regard to Salvadorans who requested asylum, and wish to continue staying in the U.S., is complicated by America's own involvement in the Salvadoran conflict -- an involvement of some $4 billion in support for the Salvadoran government. From the INS' view, nine months' more leeway apparently takes care of U.S. responsibilities. But Vail argues that's not enough; only permanent residence for those who want it should suffice. "You can say, why should the United States have to take them in?" he notes. "One of the answers is because we in large part were responsible for that situation."

For Houston's Salvadorans, imagining the fallout of the DED decision has become a compulsion. In the months leading up to the INS announcement, the prospect of DED's running out on December 31 sparked panic in El Salvador. Its immigrants here send home more than $800 million a year, an amount that serves as the backbone of the Salvadoran economy. In the most remote Salvadoran villages, the houses built by American dollars always stand out: pert cement and wrought iron cottages among mud houses trimmed with tin or banana leaves. Entire industries -- such as Gigante Express, which carries about 100 money orders a day from Houston to El Salvador -- have sprung from the wave of immigrants during the war years. Faced with DED's end, the Salvadoran government repeatedly pleaded that its fragile economy would be unable to either give up the U.S.-based Salvadorans' earnings, or absorb them if forced to accept 200,000 returning residents.

In Houston, a few Salvadorans have already given up hope and gone home, says 41-year-old Rene Flores, a legal resident of the U.S. "I have a friend who's leaving this month," Flores says. "He says he may as well cut his losses." Other immigrants are working harder than ever to earn money to send home, and trying to prepare themselves psychologically if they don't get permanent asylum, Flores adds.

Francisco Lopez of the Gulfton Area Neighborhood Organization -- which operates in a section of Houston heavy with Salvadorans -- says activists here will give their best shot at convincing INS to award asylum to everyone who seeks it. "We have nine months to get people applied," Lopez said. "We're working with three other groups to put together an informational program, with little clinics [to help people apply]. On the last day of January, we will have a whole day at Robert E. Lee High School with volunteers from different agencies to prepare people for ABC." The groups hope to continue having similar clinics once or twice a month, Lopez says, announcing them via radio, churches and Spanish language TV.

Although Salvadoran advocates in Houston are mainly focusing on existing asylum rules, Lopez and some other immigrants say that the real reason Salvadorans should be allowed to stay is more subtle -- and much simpler -- than the issues addressed by asylum law. And that reason is that the Salvadoran war lasted so long that many of the immigrants who originally came to the U.S. in search of temporary safety have established roots in their new country. They've become as much Americans as Salvadorans, and making them go back to El Salvador wouldn't necessarily be sending them home, it could well be taking them away from home.

"Even I have my differences with other advocates about that issue," admits Lopez, himself an immigrant who fled army death threats in the 1980s. Important as it may be, "it's not just the political situation" at issue, he says. "Salvadorans here in the last 12 years have become established. They feel, 'Now that I'm a legal resident, I want to stay.'

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