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Salvadorans’ Stay in U.S. to Be Extended

Times Staff Writer

Federal authorities will announce today that 248,000 Salvadoran immigrants who hold special residency and work permits -- most of whom live in California -- will receive an 18-month extension to stay in the United States until September 2006.

The special visas, which would have expired in March, were created to assist El Salvador after that country was ravaged by powerful earthquakes in 2001. The temblors destroyed 300,000 homes and damaged roads, hospitals and other vital infrastructure.

El Salvador is still rebuilding, and officials said the U.S. visa program has provided the Central American government with needed breathing room. Not only do immigrants stay in the United States legally, many of them send money to relatives, an indirect form of aid to El Salvador.

The extension would be the second since U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft offered the visas to Salvadorans in 2001.

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It is part of a larger immigrant program that Congress established in 1990 to help noncitizens in the United States who temporarily are unable to safely return to their countries because of ongoing armed conflict, environmental disasters or other difficulties.

Of the more than 2 million Salvadorans who live in the United States, about half reside in California. A majority of them are in Los Angeles. Many of them send money, totaling $2.5 billion a year, home, according to a U.S. government estimate. That is about 15% of El Salvador’s annual gross national product.

The 2001 earthquakes left more than 1.5 million people, one quarter of the country’s population, without adequate housing. According to Salvadoran and U.S. officials, only a small number of homes have been rebuilt.

“Mainly, the challenges that El Salvador still faces due to the earthquakes are in the social and health sectors,” said El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, Rene Leon. “Eight of our main hospitals were destroyed or severely damaged so they can’t be used anymore. Those still have to be rebuilt. Fifty-two schools were seriously damaged in the earthquake and have not been rebuilt.”

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Proponents of tougher immigration laws have criticized such visa programs for allowing immigrants to gain temporary footholds in the United States that often become permanent as they marry or give birth to U.S. citizens. They also complain that Salvadorans who live in the United States under the program lure relatives who are ineligible to join them.

The situation of Aida Guevara, 28, of Vernon speaks to the arguments on both sides of the visa program. Guevara has benefited from the temporary protected status program since its inception, having illegally immigrated to the United States 11 years ago to seek economic opportunities.

Her 1-year-old son is an American citizen. Her two siblings who followed her from El Salvador to the United States are undocumented.

Each month she sends about $250 -- she makes $14,000 annually -- to her mother, father and four siblings in El Salvador. Their house was destroyed during the 2001 earthquakes.

“That money is so important that if [I] don’t send money, my family down there will starve,” she said. “I believe that it’s their only source of income. They were able to rebuild their house with money I sent.”

The earthquakes were especially devastating because two major ones were only one month apart.

“What the first didn’t destroy, the second one did,” Leon said.

The extension is available to all those who hold temporary protective status. Since the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, Salvadorans in the United States have benefited from several residency programs.

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In 1986, the Reagan administration granted amnesty to Central Americans who had been living in the United States since 1982. The policy was perceived as a way to assist thousands of refugees who were fleeing several Central American wars. In 1991, the U.S. government settled a federal class-action lawsuit with Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum-seekers who contended that they were unfairly barred from entering the United States.

Other countries whose U.S.-based citizens have been given the special visas include Montserrat, Honduras, Sudan and Liberia.

One U.S. immigration official said the program usually was reserved for cases in which “the entire nation is devastated, not just one little area. For example, the earthquakes in El Salvador affected the entire nation.”

Each disaster-struck country is judged by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on a case-by-case basis, the official said.

Diana Hull, a proponent of stricter immigration laws, said she doubted that the U.S. government would ever take away Salvadorans’ temporary status.

“There’s an inevitability about these temporary programs,” she said. “There is no such thing as temporary immigration, really. I’m concerned about numbers.”

Guevara said she intends to stay no matter what happens to her temporary visa.

“I would not be willing to go back to El Salvador,” she said. “Life there is so difficult and it’s so expensive. There are no jobs, there is crime. And my baby was born here. He is an American citizen and I want him to study here and grow up here.”

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