LOS ANGELES — El Salvador’s savage civil war drove Roberto and Margarita Herrador north to the United States in search of a safe haven for their family. They found it in a country that, after 15 years, still won’t accept them.
The Herradors and their three daughters are among tens of thousands of Salvadoran and Guatemalan war refugees whose applications for permanent residency, the first step toward citizenship, are languishing in INS files though their eligibility was guaranteed by an act of Congress.
A peculiarity in Immigration and Naturalization Service procedures is creating a large and growing backlog of applications, and agency officials estimate it will take 20 years to get through them.
That’s an eternity for families like the Herradors, who have spent years seeking their promised residency under first one program, then another.
“There are a lot of people whose lives are on hold because of these delays,” said Robert J. Foss, legal director of the Central American Resource Center. “The INS is failing in a very big way around a group of people who have already been through the wringer more than once.”
The people affected have been in this country for more than a decade, and most came to escape civil war. Their lives are burdened in countless ways because they don’t have green cards, the proof of permanent residency.
“It’s created this sort of double standard for us. We have to do double the work to get anything done than the average citizen,” said Ingrid Herrador, 25, in an interview in the family’s small apartment in Mar Vista, a working class community just behind Venice Beach. “And even though we do all of that and could be really good for this society we have all these obstacles that make it almost impossible.”
Ingrid was accepted by the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1995 but couldn’t go because she was ineligible for in-state tuition and student aid.
The family’s legal status prevented Margarita from returning to El Salvador when her mother and then her sister died.
Daughter Claudia, 28, must put off her dream of joining the Peace Corps until her case is resolved.
Roberto, a trained accountant, has worked as a cashier at the same gas station for over a decade and now makes $8 an hour. Career advancement is difficult for a nonresident with only a yearly work permit.
In El Salvador, Margarita and Roberto saw fellow activists in the Catholic church brutally murdered by death squads and the military, and feared for their own lives. Their daughters remember cowering inside as gun battles raged, and finding scattered body parts while playing near their house. Sudden noises still make Ingrid cringe.
“We were forced to come, because we were suffering many things. We had no choice,” Margarita said, speaking in Spanish. “But we didn’t want to be in the situation we are in now.”
The Herrador family is eligible for permanent residency under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, known as Nacara, passed by Congress in 1997. A different provision of the act applied to Nicaraguans and Cubans; their application process is much less stringent and most of their cases have been resolved.
Those eligible had to, among other things, arrive in this country before 1990, live here continuously for seven years and demonstrate good moral character.
There are millions of Salvadorans and Guatemalans living in the United States. Roughly 300,000 are eligible under Nacara and about 100,000 have filed applications.
The delay in processing Nacara claims comes down to a quirk of INS bureaucracy.
Nacara applications are processed by the INS Asylum Division, which handles three other types of cases — asylum seekers, new arrivals to the United States who have a credible fear of returning home and refugees overseas. The INS is required by law to process some of these cases quickly, and classifies them as a higher priority than the Nacara cases.
Asylum and refugee cases are processed first. This fiscal year, that will take about 95 percent of the agency’s time and manpower, leaving just 5 percent to handle Nacara cases, according to agency estimates.
With the asylum and refugee workload growing, only 6,000 Nacara cases a year are expected to be completed from now on. At that pace, it will take approximately 20 years to adjudicate all the cases, according to INS documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Immigration officials acknowledge Nacara applicants are in an unfortunate predicament.
“We completely understand the frustration of the Nacara applicants in terms of waiting for the adjudication,” INS spokesman Dan Kane said. “They deserve to have their applications adjudicated in a timely manner. However, we are doing the best we can with the very limited resources that we have at this time.”
Lawmakers are aware of the Nacara delays. Immigration reform to address the problem failed to pass in Congress in 2001 despite support from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and some Democrats.
More reform efforts were planned this session, but after Sept. 11, prospects for addressing Nacara look dim, said U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, the only member of Congress who is of Central American descent.
“It is not going to go away,” said Solis, whose mother is Nicaraguan and father is Mexican. “Whether it gets addressed immediately or not remains to be seen.”
Margarita Herrador has nearly given up hope of residency for herself and her husband. But she will continue to pray nightly for her daughters to one day become U.S. citizens.
“We have been here so long, begging them. One door opens, and another closes,” Margarita said. “When we came my daughters were little girls. Now they’re grown, and we’re in the same situation, and nothing has happened.”