Fearful of Immigration Law : Salvadorans From U.S. Return to Uncertainty

Times Staff Writer

Emilio Gonzalez arrived on an overnight flight from Los Angeles with tired eyes, a stubble beard and a sigh of resignation. As the 45-year-old factory worker stepped out of the terminal building at El Salvador's Comalapa International Airport, young boys swarmed to his side, hawking lottery tickets and begging for spare change.

After 2 1/2 years of working illegally in the United States, Gonzalez had lost his minimum-wage job because of a new immigration law making it a criminal offense to hire undocumented workers.

"I decided it was better to come with all of my things before la migra (U.S. immigration authorities) kicked me out with just the clothes on my back," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez came home last week to start looking for work, and before he even left the airport, he encountered one of his country's realities, reflected by the horde of young boys trying to eke out a living.

Unemployment High

Officials say El Salvador's ailing economy--already suffering from 50% unemployment and under-employment--cannot absorb a large influx of returnees, and the armed forces fear that a new pool of unemployed could be fertile ground for guerrillas trying to broaden their political support.

No one knows exactly how many undocumented Salvadorans have come back as a result of the U.S. immigration law, which goes into effect in May, but they are clearly coming back and in numbers that concern the government.

"This really aggravates our social problem with unemployment," said Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, one of the most influential officers in the army. "All of these unemployed people will be frustrated. They will be easily manipulated by the guerrillas. But we can't tell them not to come back to their own country."

Each flight from the United States brings a few more returning immigrants. On the plane with Gonzalez came Maria Hernandez, 29, who said it has grown increasingly difficult to find work in the north. Hernandez came back with her five children, three of them born in the United States and carrying U.S. passports.

Leaving to Avoid Capture

Although many of the returnees have lived for years in the United States, undetected by officials, they now seem to have a near-mythical belief in the authorities' ability to catch illegals once the new law goes into effect. Like Gonzalez, many are leaving to avoid getting caught.

Agencies here that used to send scores of hopeful workers on the clandestine journey north each month say their business has dropped off 75% to 90% this year, and many such agencies have closed. Local newspapers used to carry two pages of classified ads a day from underground "tour guides," but now there are only two columns of such ads.

Many unemployed Salvadorans are no longer willing to risk the $1,400 fee--money usually borrowed at high interest rates--for a trip north that they feel may end in failure.

"I used to send two people a day," said one agency owner whose office walls are decorated with street maps of Los Angeles. "Now when I get a telephone call, I'm happy."

In the last decade, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have emigrated to the United States, fleeing a civil war here and the wretched economy that the war--and underdevelopment before the war--have wrought. Today's returnees say they left originally for economic reasons rather than fear of political persecution.

Economic Impact Feared

Salvadoran officials are worried not only about discontent among those returning without jobs but also about their families who have relied on a regular flow of dollars sent home by the workers in the United States to meet their basic needs.

U.S. officials estimate that about 500,000 Salvadorans live in the United States and send $300 million to $350 million a year to relatives back home--about the same amount as the U.S. government contributes to this country in economic aid.

A study being made by the Central American University here indicates those figures may be low. The study asserts that 1 million Salvadorans live in the United States and send home about $1.3 billion a year--more than El Salvador's entire national budget and the equivalent of half its gross national product.

Father Segundo Montes, a Jesuit sociologist and author of the study, said that each expatriate Salvadoran in the United States sends an average of $113.60 per month to relatives back home. Montes' study, partly funded by Georgetown University, is based on interviews with 2,000 Salvadoran families in the United States and El Salvador.

U.S. officials say Montes' figures are high but admit theirs also may be off.

Uncertain of Figures

"Nobody has the foggiest idea how many people we are really talking about," an American Embassy spokesman said. "Nobody knows how many really are illegal, dual citizens, green-card holders or legitimate immigrants with passports. We don't know how many will qualify for amnesty under the new law."

Under the law, immigrants who have lived in the United States continuously since 1981 may apply for legal residency. Many of the Salvadorans arrived in the United States in 1982 and 1983, when political violence here was more generalized than it is now. The seven-year-old war and degenerating economy have continued to push people northward.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Acevedo Peralta visited Washington earlier this month to lobby for an exception to the immigration bill for Salvadorans.

Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) have introduced a bill in both houses of Congress that would declare a two-year moratorium on deportations of Central Americans because of the conflicts in their countries.

But even that potential respite puts the Salvadoran government in a quandary, because it would mean recognizing that the immigrants had been forced out of their country by the war. Authorities here have been trying to foster the opposite image--that conditions are now much better in El Salvador.

Want Law Changed

"We have asked them to change the direction of the proposed law," Acevedo said. "The justification should be for economic reasons or, if it is political or for security reasons, it should say that it is because of the violence caused by the guerrillas, not by the government."

Montes said he believes as many as 100,000 Salvadorans could be forced to return to El Salvador if the law is effective and no exceptions are made.

"The return of those people would signify a loss of $130 million a year to the country," Montes said. "These people who return from the United States . . . are used to having electricity, water, transportation, good food, things that are relatively easy to get in the United States, but which require a lot of money here."

Whatever the numbers, Montes' point is widely held.

Many Salvadorans will return to the capital, which is overcrowded with refugees from the war-torn countryside and still strewn with rubble from last fall's earthquake.

In neighborhoods that enjoy public services, electricity and water are rationed. In the numerous maze-like slums of clapboard and plywood shacks, women line up with plastic jugs to collect water from a trickling central faucet.

Violence Rising Again

The city is dusty from rubble and the hot wind of the dry season. Mixed with the heat is a climate of violence. And while that climate is less random than when many of the immigrants left, it is still nearby, reflected in the sound of gunfire at night and the helicopters bringing wounded soldiers in from rural battle sites.

Targeted political violence appears to be rising again in the capital, where guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front have returned to political organizing and urban warfare. Three policemen were killed in a downtown ambush last week, and an army defector claiming to be a guerrilla and his girlfriend held hundreds of school children hostage for six hours.

Last fall's earthquake created a housing shortage, and landlords doubled rents in the capital. Meanwhile, food prices shot up this month--35% for corn, 45% for rice, and 66% for beans.

In the wreckage, San Salvador has become a city of vendors. Throngs of jobless try to eke out a living in street-corner flea markets, hawking aprons, handicrafts, used clothes, fruits and food.

Some returning immigrants with a little cash enter the illegal economy. Scores of men and women stand outside of the central post office every day flagging down cars to exchange dollars for Salvadoran colones.

"Dollar, mister? Traveler? Visa?" they chant to passers-by.

Money-changers outside of Giant Express Inc., a private mail service with an office in Los Angeles, say they now are seeing fewer checks sent from the United States.

"People up there are keeping their money up there in case they lose their jobs," one said.

Fighting in Some Provinces

Conditions in the countryside are sometimes worse than in the capital. The war is still strong in several provinces. Some regions have been depopulated, while others are crowded with farmers trying to till plots barely large enough to sustain their families.

Edgardo Alfaro, a salaried civil servant from Ilobasco in the central province of Cabanas, said he needs the $100 monthly check from his son in Los Angeles to support his wife and six children still at home.

"That's about 40% of our income," said Alfaro, who sent a registered letter to Congress asking it to allow Salvadorans to stay in the United States.

Gonzalez, the factory worker who returned last week from Los Angeles, said he used to send $150 a month home to his wife and children, who came from the eastern province of San Miguel to pick him up at the airport.

Gonzalez stood round-shouldered and surrounded by his cardboard suitcases, two stereo cassette players and a Saturn robot toy--fruits of his nearly three years in Los Angeles.

"I'd like to rent some land, work the land, but I haven't saved any money," Gonzalez said. He shrugged. "Who knows?"

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