Gloria Arqueta, a Los Angeles high school student who has lived here illegally for three years, has virtually no memory of her native El Salvador except for her parents’ nightmarish stories.
For many of her 17 years, she and her family wandered through Central America, searching for a safe haven from the civil war that has ravaged their country.
“I just hear that children are being killed, burned to death, and they don’t know why,” she said. “I won’t go back.”
After so many years of flight, Arqueta finally found this week at least a temporary home in the United States.
Arqueta and thousands of others flocked to attorneys and refugee centers around the country to sign up during the final days of a unique program allowing them to legally live and work in this country until June, 1992.
At midnight today, the registration deadline for the program, known as Temporary Protected Status, will pass--and with it a rare opportunity for thousands of refugees to step out of the shadows of illegal life.
“I waited until now because I didn’t have the money to apply,” said Arqueta, who skipped a day of school to apply Tuesday. “I’m a little afraid. This could have been a trick to deport us all, but I think it’s a good deal.”
The TPS program was approved by Congress last year in a groundbreaking effort to allow people fleeing war or natural disaster in their homelands to legally reside in this country.
Salvadorans were granted temporary refuge from this January to June, 1992. Kuwaitis, Lebanese, Liberians and Somalians also have been granted haven under a similar TPS program.
Since the beginning of the program in January, more than 170,000 Salvadorans around the country have registered for TPS.
There are estimated to be up to 70,000 Salvadorans in Orange County, living mostly in Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Costa Mesa.
The effort got off to a slow start, especially in Los Angeles, home of the largest Salvadoran community in the United States.
Many refugees spoke of their suspicions that they might be deported by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service through the information they provided on the TPS registration forms.
In addition, the original cost of registering--$405 for each person over the entire 18 months of safe haven--put the program out of reach for many refugees.
But after the INS agreed in May to reduce the fees to $255 for the full 18 months of the program, and refugee organizations stepped up their efforts to publicize the program, the number of applications began to increase, surpassing the INS’ original estimate of 150,000 by August.
The original June 30 registration deadline brought a flood of applicants. That deadline was later extended by four months to tonight.
Pat Young, legal director of the Central American Refugee Center in New York, said not as many people are coming forward as in June, but there were still enough to pack the agency’s office.
“It’s been quite heavy since Columbus Day,” he said. “It’s pretty hectic, but we’re prepared.”
The INS announced this week that it would keep 10 of its largest offices around the country open until midnight to accommodate the last minute rush.
In Los Angeles, lines began forming at the Central American Refugee Center and El Rescate hours before their doors opened Wednesday. By afternoon, the offices were jammed with families filling out the registration forms and waiting to be fingerprinted and photographed.
“It’s been crazy around here,” said Madeline Janis, executive director of the refugee center in Los Angeles. “We’ve been open every day for the last two weeks. We’ll stay open as late as we have to.”
Oscar Rivas, 28, came to the United States two years ago, fleeing the war in El Salvador. He said he wanted to register in January, but did not have the money.
Thanks to a fortuitous carpentry job last week, Rivas was able to apply. His wife, a Nicaraguan, is ineligible, but he was able to submit an application for his 5-year-old daughter.
“I always wanted to do this for her,” he said. “Now, the law can protect her more.”
Many who stood in line Wednesday still harbored concerns that the INS will move to deport them at the end of the program next June.
Their decision also was complicated by the tentative peace agreement between the Salvadoran government and rebel forces announced last month.
Instead of prompting an exodus home, it has only heightened concerns that the INS may move to deport the Salvadorans before real peace has been achieved.
Janis said all the TPS refugees can also apply for political asylum, which could provide years, and perhaps decades, of legal residence in the United States.
Those extra years, she said, will provide a margin of safety to the thousands of refugees like Rivas who after more than a decade of war, are wary of pronouncements of peace.
“This is the greatest opportunity for peace El Salvador has had in 10 years,” Rivas said. “But the situation is not right yet. Yes, I am still afraid to go back.”