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Salvadorans out of the shadows

Thousands to renew legal status this week

When Freddy Bonilla left his small farming town in El Salvador to join his brother and a few other relatives in East Boston eight years ago, he quickly found work in the city's underground economy alongside other immigrants who had also entered the United States illegally.

But he never liked the shadowy lifestyle, with its constant threat of deportation. As soon as he had an opportunity to legalize his presence here in 2001, he grabbed it -- and has made sure he has remained a legal resident ever since.

''It's better to be legal," said Bonilla, a restaurant worker who dreams of one day becoming a US citizen like his US-born children, Freddy, 3, and Mirna, 2.

''When you are illegal, you are filled with fear every time you walk down the street. You have no Social Security number. Everyone rejects you. You can't even have a telephone installed in your name," Bonilla recalled last week during a visit to the Salvadoran Consulate to reapply for a special immigration permit called ''Temporary Protected Status."

The 26-year-old East Boston man is one of thousands of local Salvadorans flocking to the consulate in East Boston, Centro Presente in Cambridge, and other area organizations ahead of Tuesday's reapplication deadline.

The program, run by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, grants temporary legal residency to El Salvadorans who entered the country illegally before 2001.

The program was created for immigrants from countries where civil war, natural disasters, or other extraordinary conditions mean they could not safely return to their homes. Besides El Salvador, six other countries, including Nicaragua and Sudan, currently benefit from Temporary Protected Status programs.

In El Salvador's case, US officials launched the program as a humanitarian gesture after two massive earthquakes devastated the country in 2001.

Salvadorans here illegally, who could prove they were in the United States before the 2001 quakes, were initially permitted to remain for 18 months. Since then, federal officials have extended the program three times -- most recently in January, when Homeland Security officials extended temporary residency through September of next year to give the impoverished Central American country more time to rebuild hospitals, schools, and roads.

Nationwide, as many as a quarter of a million Salvadorans are expected to reapply, according to Homeland Security. It's harder to say how many Boston-area immigrants will be among them. There are an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Salvadorans in New England, nearly half in the Boston area, according to Roberto Escobar, consul general of the Consulate of El Salvador in Boston. He estimates about 20 percent will reapply. The others have become legal residents by other means or are not eligible. Only those who have paid income taxes and have never been convicted of a felony, or two or more misdemeanors, are eligible.

''Reapplying is of basic importance. Those who fail to do so are jeopardizing their lives here and could be deported," Escobar said.

Salvadorans who don't reapply will be vulnerable to deportation as early as Tuesday, when the current protected status period ends. Those who reregister are automatically granted a six-month extension, to give federal officials time to process their applications, according to Homeland Security. Last week, Escobar sought to spread the message among area employers that Salvadoran workers covered by the program can continue to work legally even though their government-ssued photo ID cards say their permits run out on March 8.

''It's important the employers understand so that thousands of people don't lose their jobs unnecessarily," Escobar said.

Salvadorans began making the difficult and dangerous journey through Mexico and into the US during the Central American country's long-running civil war. The war ended in the mid-1990s. But they continued to travel north for work and to send money home to their families even before the country's economy was hobbled by earthquakes four years ago.

About one in every three Salvadorans, or about 2.5 million people, now lives abroad, according to the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington. The vast majority of emigrants, about 2 million people, live in the United States.

Together the country's diaspora send home $2.5 billion annually to help feed family members in El Salvador, Escobar said. He said the foreign workers have become an important source of hard currency for the country of 6.5 million people. , according to the embassy and independent analysts.

Only about 12 percent of US Salvadorans are currently enrolled in the protected status program. The number has dwindled in the last three years, as some immigrants have opted to return home, found ways to legalize their status, or lost eligibility by such things as not filing tax returns, according to Maria Elena Letona, executive director of Centro Presente.

''Since TPS was first granted in 2001, the number of Salvadorans who have reregistered has diminished. There were 320,000 originally. Last time there were about 250,000," said Letona, who added that her Cambridge community group is on track to reregister about 1,000 people this year.

Immigrant advocates are pushing for changes to the program that would make it a steppingstone for immigrants like Bonilla and his wife, Reyna Mejia, in pursuing their dream of becoming permanent residents or citizens. Currently, being here under the program does not count as legal residency toward citizenship.

However, groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform oppose Temporary Protective Status, arguing that its beneficiaries are not temporary visitors, but people like Bonilla, who entered the United States illegally and have stayed for years.

Bonilla says the program has provided him a chance to contribute to US society and raise his two American-born children in peace, without the fears that dogged him as an illegal resident.

''You are more comfortable and have more opportunities when you have a legal right to be here," Bonilla said.

E-mail Christine MacDonald at

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