Silva Letter Holders in an Immigration Limbo

Times Staff Writer

The letters Juan Diosdado and Dionicio Salazar keep in their wallets are old and tattered, folded and refolded so many times that the paper is worn at the creases. For the two Mexicans and their families the form letters are artifacts of frustration, frayed pieces of hope.

The documents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service are known as Silva letters. For Diosdado, Salazar and perhaps as many as 100,000 others who have these documents--including about 60,000 in Los Angeles and Southern California--this letter once offered the prospect of permanent legal residence in this country. For many years, because of a complex legal case involving immigration quotas, it was at least a reprieve from the threat of deportation. Now it is potentially a one-way ticket out of the country.

The Diosdados and Salazars probably are typical of Silva letter holders who have yet to gain legal status in this country. Both families have lived here more than 10 years. Juan, 38, works as a truck driver and his wife, Maria, 40, is employed by a garment manufacturer. Three of their six children--the oldest is 16--were born in this country and thus are citizens, eligible to remain here should their parents be deported.

Disabled by a back problem, Dionicio, 62, and his wife Maria, 55, are mostly supported by their working-age children, the couple said. They have 11 children, ages 9 to 32. One was born in this country. The Dionicios came here, they said, mainly because they believed their children would get a better education. However, one was denied a scholarship and another was not allowed to join the Marine Corps because they are not legal residents.

These days the Diosdados said they "feel desperate" and frozen in place. They have not seen their parents in Mexico for eight years, they said in an interview, because they are afraid to cross the border.

Furthermore, the Diosdados said they feel especially vulnerable because they complied with the paper work originally required of Silva applicants. In a sense, they are documented, they said, and federal authorities could locate them by the trail of forms they have voluntarily filed. These statements were echoed by the Salazars, whose parents have died since they came to Southern California from Guadalajara.

In fact, the Silva letter has become a powerful symbol of the political and social complexities of the immigration issue. The arguments that have raged for years around the Silva letter holders are illustrations of the ambivalence in the United States toward immigration reform and the millions who have sought political and economic refuge here in recent years.

These ambivalent attitudes were displayed in an exchange of letters in the Los Angeles Times last year. Julie Parker of Altadena wrote that Silva letter holders, such as a family she knew who owned a home, paid taxes and had children who had never been to Mexico, were "in an especially unjust situation" after the husband was detained by immigration authorities.

William Winther of La Puente replied: "What is so terrible about returning Mexican citizens to their homeland after their entrance agreement has expired? . . . There are only so many jobs and homes available. These jobs should go to our own good citizens, millions of whom are unemployed."

Now the Silva issue is surfacing yet again. Popkin, Shamir & Golan, a Los Angeles law firm that specializes in immigration law, has formed the Committee for the Legalization of Silva Applicants to lobby for the group. The firm, whose partners include former immigrants, says it is seeking to give the Silva applicants--traditionally fragmented and submerged in their ethnic groups--a voice of their own.

Among other things, the firm maintains it is time to consider the Silva people as a special case rather than wait for passage of a blanket immigration reform bill. So far, the committee has located, through stories run in the Spanish-language press, about 450 Silva applicants, including the Diosdados and the Dionicios.

Like Unwelcome Guests

Over the years many other organizations, including the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles, have been involved in the Silva case and none has found the key of welcome. Moreover, the Silva letter holders have never been given special consideration in any immigration legislation--a common tactic when potential immigrants are caught in a legal snare.

This is once more the case in two new immigration reform bills introduced by California Reps. Ed Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach) this year, both of which rely on the blanket amnesty approach to long-term illegal residents to deal with Silva-type problems, spokesmen for the two say. For the moment at least, it seems that little action on the congressional front can be expected. Final assignments to both the House and Senate immigration committees, which would take initial action on any immigration matter, have not been made for this session.

To their advocates--seemingly even to spokesmen for the Immigration and Naturalization Service--the Silva letter holders, mainly Mexicans, are people trapped in a stateless black hole created by a lack of political clout, the federal government's favored treatment of other nationalities and the collapse of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill in Congress. The bill, which died without action in the House, would have granted amnesty to as many as 2 million illegal aliens who could prove they had lived here before 1982. Officially and legally, they are simply a group of illegal aliens whose special protections have been exhausted.

Previous Exceptions Made

By all rights, argue the supporters of the Silva people, the Diosdados and others like them should be legal residents by now, perhaps citizens. Those familiar with the Silva affair maintain that exceptions have been made for other groups, including investors, physicians and political refugees caught in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of immigration law.

The reasons the letter holders have no legal status date back to the mid-1970s when Refugio Silva, a Mexican immigrant, filed a class-action lawsuit contending that from 1968 to 1976 nearly 145,000 immigrant visas had been awarded to refugees from Cuba, a communist country, at the expense of applicants from other countries in this hemisphere.

In effect, the visas granted to Cuban refugees were unfairly "charged" against those available to other Western Hemisphere immigrants, the suit contended. Silva eventually won in the courts and the visas were "restored" to applicants from other countries.

While the Silva and related cases were before the courts, the INS unilaterally began issuing the letters to the backlog of Western Hemisphere applicants from countries other than Cuba. The letters provided temporary protection from deportation while the matter was sorted out in court. This protection expired in 1981 and was reinstated temporarily in 1982 when the U.S. Senate passed the Simpson-Mazzoli bill.

Letters went to about 250,000 persons, nearly all Mexicans living in the Southwest. Of these, about 145,000 eventually were granted resident visas, thereby correcting the imbalance as ordered by the court, the INS contended. However, as many as 100,000 letter holders were left without legal status. By issuing more letters than there were visas available, the INS unfairly created expectations that it could never fulfill, Silva supporters argue.

Any discussion of the Silva matter produces a welter of numbers. No two sources seem to operate with the same set of figures. Even the INS cites different numbers in its documents and through spokesmen. Newspaper accounts over the years also have cited varying estimates.

Part of the problem seems to be that court decisions have modified the visa allocation formulas adopted by the INS. In the meantime, Congress amended immigration law, drastically changing immigration quotas, forcing further modification of procedures. The matter is further confused by the fact that each Silva letter holder is likely to have several dependents, including children born in this country, and may own a home.

Antonio Rodriguez, immigration consultant to the Mexican-American Political Assn., estimates that the total number of letter holders and dependents could be as high as 650,000, including 300,000 children. This is a "high end" estimate. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund puts the number at 250,000 to 300,000.

Whatever the actual numbers, Simpson-Mazzoli offered an escape clause. If that bill had passed, most of of the Silva letter holders would have been covered. And that's why the INS gave Silva letter holders another period of immunity from deportation. That period ended Feb. 1, 1983. No new immunity period was offered when Simpson-Mazzoli was before Congress last year and failed once more.

No Formal Deportations

So for more than two years, the Silva letter holders have been living on the edge. The INS has not begun a formal drive to deport the Silva letter holders and has no plans to do so, spokesmen said. By all accounts, most letter holders are still living in this country. But everyone, including the INS, agrees that an undetermined number, caught in other sweeps of illegal aliens, have been expelled, and others, abandoning hope, have left the United States of their own accord.

"I would say that there have been thousands deported, not only here but in Texas," said Linda Wong, director of the immigrants' civil rights program at the legal defense and education fund's office in Los Angeles.

However, Joe Flanders, a spokesman for INS in the Los Angeles area, emphasized that there has been no concerted effort to deport Silva people, adding that any deportations have occurred "because we have no alternative." Flanders said that INS calculated, like many others, that "down the road Simpson-Mazzoli would solve the problem." And, he added, "the situation is now in limbo for all practical purposes."

It was this state of affairs that prompted Popkin, Shamir & Golan to form the committee, said Ruth Shamir. "A lot of people believed Simpson-Mazzoli would pass," she said. "But the bill did not pass and life is beginning again." Shamir is skeptical that a comprehensive bill will ever make it out off Capitol Hill.

"There will always be somebody who says, 'Why resolve the Silva matter or why resolve any matter by itself if we can resolve the whole thing?' On the other hand, somehow nobody can agree on the whole thing. So maybe it's better to resolve it (immigration) fraction by fraction, piece by piece."

Many groups, she noted, have been given special consideration by the government. For instance, she said, most of the 125,000 Cubans who fled their country during the 1980 Mariel boat lift have been granted resident status and many now are now being allowed to apply for citizenship. Many Silva letter holders came to this country years earlier, Shamir added.

"The Silva people have jobs, they have raised and educated children here, children who speak perfect English. I saw a girl the other day who came here when she was 2 years old. She is now 20 and she doesn't really understand what is wrong. She only knows she doesn't have the right papers to get a passport."

Personal Motives

Shamir said she is partly motivated by her own history. As a child, she fled Europe at the beginning of World War II, she said. "I grew up with a feeling of displacement," she explained.

The firm will lobby Congress and try to organize the Silva letter holders into a coherent group. Shamir contended that they have been largely disregarded because they have never been welded into a cohesive, vocal group.

In Washington, INS spokesman Duke Austin said his agency is baffled by attitudes such as Shamir's.

"They want it both ways," he said. "They want us to give them numbers (legal status) but not to deport them if they don't have legal status. Some people think the INS is not a law enforcement agency."

But Austin said that he "can understand where they're coming from" when Silva backers maintain that letter holders haven't gotten a fair deal. "I can understand them shouting to have something done about the Silva thing, a special bill or whatever. That's what our government's all about."

Antonio Rodriguez, immigration consultant to the Mexican-American Political Assn., said that the long-running Silva controversy has contributed to the Latino community's distrust of immigration reform, particularly amnesty provisions that would require illegals to register with the government. There is no guarantee that amnesty provisions would not be withdrawn, he said.

Both he and Shamir also said they fear that the de facto official tolerance the Silva letter people now have may end soon. "I would assume another storm is coming up," Rodriguez said.

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