Hundreds of Salvadoran immigrants from across the country gathered in Washington yesterday for a special meeting to discuss issues involving their community in the United States and ways to boost their assistance to their native land.

The convention marks the second annual meeting of representatives of Salvadorans who live abroad, a group estimated at 2 million. Salvadorans are the biggest immigrant group in the Washington area, with more than 104,000 people.

In a sign of the immigrants' economic clout, the president of El Salvador, Tony Saca, inaugurated the convention last night at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, telling the gathering in Spanish, "Everything we do in El Salvador includes you. You are an essential reference."

Saca, in an interview before the convention began, said, "This is a really important theme. One-fourth of our population lives abroad, 80 percent [of them] in the United States." He said he was attending the event "to hear their concerns, to hear about their desires, and tell them about my work."

About 500 Salvadoran community leaders and activists signed up for the convention, many coming from Salvadoran strongholds such as California, New York and Massachusetts, and others from as far away as Germany, activists said. Washington is home to the second-biggest concentration of Salvadorans abroad, after Los Angeles, where last year's convention was held.

"There's been great organization in the Salvadoran community in the United States since the 1980s," said Elmer Palma, a Salvadoran activist from Alexandria, referring to scores of groups that send aid to their home towns or provide social services in this country. "Now we're trying to get all these organizations together."

The convention sessions, which will take place at George Washington University, feature panel discussions on numerous concerns of Salvadoran immigrants. They include efforts to win permanent legal status for hundreds of thousands of people who hold temporary work permits as well allowing immigrants to vote from abroad in Salvadoran elections. Saca said he hoped to "pave the way" for such voting but added that it might not be possible by the next election, in 2009.

Some issues reach across the border, such as the violent gangs formed by Salvadoran immigrants in the United States, which have spread back to Central America.

"We're going to focus on the reasons why this phenomenon has taken on the scale it has in our countries. We're going to talk about the government actions" against it, said Fani Cruz, a Salvadoran immigrant who works at the Columbia Heights-Shaw Family Support Collaborative.

Other discussions will center on issues affecting people in El Salvador, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, which was recently negotiated between the United States and six countries. The accord is awaiting congressional ratification.

Some Salvadoran immigrants want to lobby Congress to approve the accord, but others oppose it. Walter Tejada (D), a Salvadoran-born U.S. citizen who serves on the Arlington County Board, said the weekend meeting will provide an opportunity to evaluate the free-trade agreement and its support among Salvadorans. "Is this something that will benefit the neediest of the neediest in El Salvador?" he asked. "Those who will support CAFTA really want to be able to answer to the [Salvadoran] community."

Salvadorans are a vital source of support to their homeland, sending about $2.1 billion a year, about 16 percent of gross domestic product. That has given them increased weight in the country's government.

Saca, who took office in June, said he would invite immigrant leaders to join government officials and other Salvadorans at a forum devoted to the diaspora, to be held Nov. 26-27 in San Salvador. It will address such issues as how to channel remittances to create more growth, he said.

Salvadoran President Tony Saca takes the stage at the convention.Salvadoran President Tony Saca leaves the stage after concluding his remarks. Earlier, he said he came "to hear their concerns."