Salvadoran President Tony Saca was cheered yesterday by hundreds of immigrants in a Silver Spring church as he launched a campaign to remind Salvadorans to re-register for a program granting them temporary U.S. work permits.
The program, known as Temporary Protected Status, was opened to Salvadorans in the United States in early 2001 after two earthquakes devastated their country. The Department of Homeland Security said last week that it will extend the benefit for 18 months because the Central American country is still rebuilding. About 250,000 people are eligible.
Salvadorans crowd tables where the Salvadoran Embassy, nonprofit groups and volunteers offered assistance. Here, President Tony Saca assists a woman in signing up. The U.S. program "permits families to be together," he said.
(Photos Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
Saca, an ardent U.S. ally, made a priority of winning immigrants an extension, the third since the earthquakes. El Salvador relies heavily on money sent home by its workers abroad, about $2.5 billion last year. About 40 percent came from Salvadorans with the temporary work permits, the country's officials said.
Saca was greeted by at least 400 Salvadorans at Iglesia Restaracion Elim, a converted movie theater on Flower Avenue, where several ministers gave speeches thanking him and God for the extension. The ceremony was punctuated with cries of "Amen!" and "Gloria a Dios!" (Glory to God).
From a stage decorated with U.S. and Salvadoran flags, Saca assured the immigrants that his government wasn't thinking only of their money when it lobbied the Bush administration for the extension.
The program "permits families to be together. [It] guarantees that a father won't be separated from his wife, or their children, who could be Americans," Saca said.
But he warned the Salvadorans that their worries weren't over. He said this could be the last extension of the temporary relief program. When it ends next year, the immigrants could have no legal status in the United States.
"We have to work for immigration reform," Saca urged, referring to proposals by President Bush to establish a massive guest worker program. He called on the immigrants to contact local authorities and members of the U.S. Congress. "You have to join all the campaigns out there."
Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group in the Washington area, with nearly 105,000 counted in the 2000 Census. Those at yesterday's event were awed by the president, who traveled to Washington to mark the beginning of the two-month period of re-registration.
"It's great to see him. He gives us Salvadorans a lot of confidence that we're getting his support," said Ulisses Bado, 25, a drywall worker from Hyattsville.
After the ceremony, Salvadorans crowded the vestibule of the church, where the Salvadoran Embassy and nonprofit groups offered assistance with the Temporary Protected Status program forms.
The immigrants said the temporary work permits had made a huge difference in their lives.
Bado's wife, Blanca, for example, got a job as a Spanish teacher at an elementary school. After she arrived illegally in the United States, she could only get work cleaning houses or making salads, even though she was a college graduate, she said.
"It's much better -- the work, the benefits," said Blanca, 35.
Ernesto Rivera, 36, a construction worker from Hyattsville, said the temporary permit had enabled him to find a job paying $12 an hour, an increase from his previous $8-an-hour wage.
The raise was important because he was supporting his wife and three children in El Salvador, he said.
"You can't get a good job without legal status," he said.
The Salvadoran government has planned a vigorous campaign to ensure immigrants re-register for protected status by the deadline.
Salvadoran officials are mailing 350,000 booklets about the program to immigrants' homes and arranging phone calls with recorded messages from Saca, said Rene Leon, the country's ambassador to the United States.
The program is open to Salvadorans who arrived in the United States before Feb. 14, 2001.