Luis and Rosario Aguirre, a married couple who fled from civil war in their native El Salvador more than a decade ago, now have peace of mind. They were among 20 Alaska residents who received approval for their "green cards" in Anchorage last week, granting them the right to live here permanently and seek citizenship.
"It's like you're trying to see the light in the middle of the darkness," Rosario said of the 14-year wait. "It's like you're walking and walking and all of a sudden you see a light. Now I feel I got to the exit."
About 240,000 people, some of whom were members of a class-action lawsuit, can benefit from a federal law that allows asylum-seekers from certain countries to readily become legal permanent residents, immigration advocates said.
The Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act of 1997 applies to people who sought asylum in the United States from civil strife in Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala and the former Soviet bloc. It also includes their spouses and children.
An estimated 268 of those covered by the law live in Alaska, of which about 60 have applied for green cards, said Robin Bronen, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Social Services of Anchorage, which helped many of the applicants.
Last week, officials from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service asylum office in San Francisco visited Anchorage to interview 23 Alaska residents covered by the law. Twenty applications were approved, and three are pending further review, Bronen said.
The INS granted 24 similarly placed Alaskans their green cards last year, she said. So far, she said, they are the only Alaskans to be processed under the law. About 100,000 applicants await interviews with the INS nationwide, refugee advocates said.
Luis Aguirre, 49, said he left El Salvador in 1990 "because at this time there was a civil war in my country, and it was not really good to live over there." Luis said he had worked as a communications technician with the country's president, Jose Napoleon Duarte.
The 12-year civil war between the government and leftist rebels cost an estimated 75,000 lives, and ended in 1992 with a treaty that promised military and political reforms.
In the United States, Luis lived in Los Angeles and Anchorage before moving to Juneau four years ago. He manages the Valley Taco Bell, where his wife is a senior shift manager. Their 8-year-old daughter, Nathalie, was born in Alaska.
"It's different when you live in some place where you've got security," Luis said, explaining why he wanted a green card.
Rosario, 37, who was Luis' fianc at the time, came to the United States in 1988, first to Miami and then Alaska. She said she had worked as a secretary in the Salvadoran Legislature.
"In those days, if you worked for the government, you were an enemy for the communists," she said.
"It was a nightmare, so we had to leave. Not because we wanted to, but the situation was so difficult you couldn't live there, seeing so many people die," Rosario said.
Without a green card, Rosario couldn't leave the United States and legally return. She missed the funerals of two grandparents and her parents.
"It's hard losing people you love and not seeing them for the last time," Rosario said.
Now, with permanent-resident status, "I will feel big relief, living in a country where you feel secure, where you're part of this society."
Rosario said she and her husband would apply for citizenship after they have had their green cards for five years, as the law allows.
"For me," said refugee advocate Bronen, "the thing that's been most profound is to be present with people who have waited for the opportunity for so long. Fourteen years, you don't know if you had the opportunity to stay in this country, where you created a new life, or be deported and go back to a place where you suffered persecution and extreme hardship."
The class-action lawsuit began in 1985 because asylum-seekers, mainly from El Salvador and Guatemala, were being denied asylum after very brief interviews with the federal government, said Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, N.Y.
Congress granted the refugees temporary protected status in 1990, so they could stay here and work. They won a settlement in 1991 allowing them to be interviewed or reinterviewed for asylum. Asylum is a stage to getting permanent-resident status.
But only about 20 percent of the applicants were winning asylum in the mid-1990s because, with the civil wars over, they couldn't show the required "well-founded fear of persecution," Young said.
Under the 1997 law, the refugees can bypass the asylum process and apply for permanent-resident status under the presumption that they will suffer hardship if they are returned to their original country. As a result, about 96 percent of applicants nationwide under NACARA are getting their green cards, Young said.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service asylum office in San Francisco referred questions to the national office, which didn't respond immediately.
Catholic Social Services of Anchorage will visit St. Vincent de Paul in Juneau on May 23-24 to consult, at no cost, with people who may be eligible for green cards under NACARA. Interested people can call the agency at (907) 276-5590 for more information, and call St. Vincent de Paul at 789-5535 for an appointment.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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