Salvadorans Seek a Voice to Match Their Numbers

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez is a co-organizer of the Salvadoran American summit.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez is a co-organizer of the Salvadoran American summit. (By Alfredo Duarte Pereira -- El Tiempo Latino)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

For nearly three decades Salvadoran immigrants have been among the nation's most organized newcomers, founding clubs to raise money for schools back home, establishing medical clinics for new arrivals and battling in Congress and courts to gain legal status for tens of thousands of political dissidents who fled persecution by the U.S.-backed government during El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s.

Yet, even as Salvadoran immigrants and Americans of Salvadoran descent have grown to number 1.6 million -- essentially tying them with Cubans as the nation's third largest Latino group -- they have mostly shied from direct participation in U.S. politics.

About 150 of the community's most prominent leaders from across the country gathered in Washington to change that Wednesday.

"This conference is about stepping it up to another level of visibility, performance and power," said Maryland Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), a co-organizer of the First Salvadoran American Leadership Summit.

"When we first came to the United States, it was just about survival, so that's what our organizations focused on," Salvadoran-born Gutierrez said. "Now we have a community that has evolved, but I think we're kind of stuck in that service model. . . . We have to either create new political institutions, or we have to expand those current organizations so they also play a political role."

Conference participants plan to lobby more than 80 members of Congress on Thursday in support of efforts to offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Wednesday's meeting included strategy sessions on how to influence the immigration debate and ensuring that Salvadoran Americans are fully counted in the 2010 Census.

But participants stressed that the larger purpose was simply to overcome their geographic dispersal, personality differences and longstanding ideological divisions stemming from El Salvador's civil war to convene as a group for the first time.

"We're not here to look for unity, because unity is a romantic dream that is hard to reach," said Salvador Sanabria of Salvadorans in the World, one of the four largest organizations. "We're here to come to this round table without hierarchy to find a consensus about the actions we can take to help our community."

Among the clearest points of agreement was that Salvadoran Americans should insist that any legalization plan adopted by Congress allow about 200,000 Salvadoran illegal immigrants who were granted temporary legal status in the wake of a 2001 earthquake to be the first in line to become permanent legal residents.

Indeed, several participants pointed to the unusual interests of those Salvadorans as an example of why they need to organize as a separate, national Salvadoran American movement.

"We have a separate identity even as we're part of the larger Latino community," said Jose Artiga of the SHARE foundation, which promotes development in El Salvador.

For all the event's optimism, there are some daunting obstacles to transforming the numerical strength of Salvadoran Americans into political clout. According to an analysis of Census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, 47 percent of U.S. residents of Salvadoran descent are not citizens. And 26 percent more are citizens but are still children, leaving only 27 percent who are currently eligible to vote. And it was perhaps telling that much of the discussion at the conference was in Spanish.

Still, many took heart in the political success of Salvadoran Americans in the Washington region. While far more Salvadorans live in California, their influence there is often overshadowed by that state's much larger Mexican American population.

By contrast, its 134,000 Salvadoran immigrants comprise the Washington region's largest foreign-born group. The figure is greater if their U.S.-born children are included.

That might explain why the nation's four highest Salvadoran American elected officials are from Washington. In addition to Gutierrez, they are Arlington County Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada (D), the summit's other co-organizer; Maryland Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's); and Prince George's County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), who were also in attendance.

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