“I had a home, but I left it because of the trouble,” Ricardo said. “When I returned to the home with my family, we found it had been destroyed, erased during fighting between guerrillas and the army.”
Like many of the 800,000 Salvadorans in the United States--with as many as 70,000 in Orange County--Ricardo fled his country because a 10-year-old civil war had made it impossible for his family to stay in one place and make a living.
Ricardo, who asked that his full name not be used, first moved with his family to the home of relatives in another part of El Salvador, where the fighting often cut electricity to the hacienda where he worked. Then he came to the United States, hoping to eventually bring his family.
He lives in the garage of a friend’s home in Santa Ana, where he has no heat or running water. Because he is an undocumented immigrant, he has had difficulty finding work. He survives on the $25 a day he earns selling clothing for another friend on weekends at the Orange Drive-In Swap Meet.
When Ricardo clandestinely made his way into this country two years ago, he was quickly apprehended by U.S. immigration officials in Texas. He applied for political asylum, but a federal judge who presided over his deportation hearing wanted to know whether Ricardo bore the physical scars of torture; whether he had been forced to fight for the leftist guerrillas; and whether he could prove that he would be killed if he returned to his homeland.
And because the answer to those questions was no, Ricardo was denied asylum, as are most Salvadorans who have made similar pleas in the last few years. But the passage of a new immigration law that took effect Jan. 2 will suspend, for at least 18 months, the debate about whether the United States has an obligation to take in refugees from a 10-year-old civil war that has driven out as many 1.5 million people from a country with a population of 5.5 million.
Immigrant-rights advocates have long argued that the only reason Salvadorans were denied political asylum--while exiles from other countries such as Vietnam, Cuba and the Soviet Union were easily granted such status--was that the United States provides military and economic aid (about $460 million in 1990) to El Salvador.
But the new law does not mention politics or war. It says only that all Salvadorans who can prove they have been in this country since Sept. 19, 1990 (assuming they have committed no serious crimes here), will be eligible for temporary protected status, allowing them to live and work here legally for 18 months.
The new law has provided a glimmer of hope for the thousands of Salvadorans in Orange County who have been living an underground existence. But at the same time, as voluntary agencies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service prepare for the volumes of applications they are expecting, immigrant-rights advocates and Salvadorans themselves are wondering if it is prudent to register for the new sanctions when there is no guarantee that the program will be renewed at the end of the 18 months.
“I want to advise caution to the Salvadoran community,” said Sophia Cortez, a Salvadoran premed student at UC Irvine. “As a Salvadoran, I am very pessimistic about the outcome of this program at the end of the 18 months. To continue the program would be for the U.S. to agree that there is a war going on in El Salvador, a war that they are supporting to the tune of more than $1 million a day.”
Cortez and a handful of other Salvadoran professionals in Orange County, who have been here for years and are legal residents, are trying to organize a network to inform the Salvadoran community about the new law and other services. They are members of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, but they say this county also needs organizations that deal specifically with the concerns of Salvadorans, who are stuck in a political and legal limbo.
“In Orange County, we (Salvadorans) continue to be a ghost community,” said psychiatrist Rolando Castillo of the North Orange County Community Center. “Many people here assume Latinos are a homogenous group. They lump us together with all the other Spanish speakers here. But we come from a region that is experiencing war, a civil war, and the impact this has on an individual, a family, and even the entire society in El Salvador, is very great. But the acknowledgment we have gotten from local and regional governments here is only minimal.”
Many live in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Costa Mesa, Cortez said.
They include families who have immigrated together or separately, some single-parent households and many men who have come here alone to try to make their way financially before sending for their families.
They work in restaurants, in electronic assembly plants, for maintenance companies that clean office buildings or as housekeepers at hotels. Cortez said there are also many professionals who are forced to take menial jobs because they have no working papers.
Because most Salvadoran immigrants came to this country after 1982, most did not qualify for the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to about 186,000 Latino immigrants in the county.
So they try to blend in.
“They are trying to survive,” Cortez said. “They have become very clandestine. Some of them have really adapted to Mexican styles, like the food and the accent, because they want to blend in. In Los Angeles, you can find a Salvadoran community. They have preserved their costume and their food. But here that is not the case.”
Most Salvadorans who come here do not bear the physical scars of war, but whether or not they were politically active in their homeland, the war defined their lives, they say.
“In the matter of war, everyone suffers,” said Carlos, a 49-year-old Salvadoran who lives in Santa Ana and is a construction laborer.
He came here last Fourth of July, after his wife and children were imprisoned and accused of providing arms to the guerrillas. They are now living in Guatemala with friends, and Carlos, who is here illegally, is trying to earn enough money to send for them.
Carlos said his family is not political and that they were not working for either side.
“We had a neighbor who had a lot of jealousy of us, and that is who we heard turned us in,” he said. “She was very good friends with some military men. She said I trafficked in arms. That is not true.
“I had to take my family out of there, or we would have suffered fatal consequences.”
Carlos said his wife, who is 46, was held for more than a month in the Ilopango Women’s Prison outside San Salvador, along with a better-known political prisoner: Jennifer Jean Casola, the American church worker who was arrested in December, 1989, after Salvadoran police raided her house and allegedly found more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition, explosives and grenades in the back yard. Carlos’ wife was released at about the same time as Casola, he said, with the help of a doctor friend.
Carlos, a truck driver who transported agricultural goods from one town to another, said he was in Costa Rica on business when he heard over the guerrillas’ radio station, Radio Venceremos, that his family had been captured. In El Salvador, he said, people are more likely to listen to rebel broadcasts because they counterbalance biased government reports about the war.
“They tortured my wife,” he said. “She said it was terrible. My oldest son--he is 22--was held prisoner too, and my wife was afraid they would kill him. She came out of there very skinny, very mistreated, very traumatized.
“Our lives have been turned around.”
Carlos made sure his family was safely in Guatemala, where they live in a shack with friends, before he made his way into this country, hitching rides and taking buses through Guatemala and Mexico.
In Tijuana, he agreed to pay smugglers $300 to take him to the home of his wife’s sister in Santa Ana. This was the shortest part of his journey, but also the most difficult--for two reasons. First, the number of Border Patrol agents around the border made the trip difficult. Second, the smugglers took him to a house in Los Angeles--he does not know exactly where--and called his family to say he would not be released until they paid $800.
“What could they do? Of course, they paid, and I will have to pay them back,” Carlos said.
He has applied for political refugee status and was granted a temporary permit that allows him to stay until March, when his case will be heard. But he is considering applying for the 18-month protected status.
“Whether we want to do it or not, we can’t get a job without it,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what the consequences will be, but we will see. We have to have faith. I have no other hope.”