The steady stream of refugees from El Salvador pouring through Buffalo over the past few years could be altered soon as part of the sweeping new immigration bill signed into law last week by President Bush.
But local groups aiding refugees are adopting a wait-and-see attitude over whether to encourage taking advantage of a new provision that allows Salvadorans to remain legally in the United States.
"I think a lot of the Salvadorans will look at it skeptically," said the Rev. John Long, who heads the local VIVE refugee aid group. "But it could help a lot of folks, too."
The new provision allows a "temporary protected status" for Salvadorans in the United States since Sept. 19, beginning Jan. 2. According to John M. Bulger, deputy district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the government now recognizes that civil war in El Salvador has created a situation in which refugees should be granted some type of legal status in the United States.
"It's not asylum, but it allows them to remain here and work here because of the strife in El Salvador," he said.
Bulger acknowledged there are few Salvadorans living in the INS Buffalo District, which takes in all of upstate New York. But several hundred per year spend some time in either Buffalo or Plattsburgh waiting entry into Canada, where immigration rules are less restrictive.
Many of those people may now decide to remain in the United States and apply for asylum.
"This will suspend any deportation proceedings and provides work authorization as long as the alien registers during the 180-day period after Jan. 2," Bulger explained.
Mr. Long, whose organization runs La Casa refugee center in Lackawanna, said the new bill provides some "breathing space," especially for people in deportation proceedings or detention centers. But he still thinks many Salvadorans who have lived illegally in the United States will be hesitant about exposing themselves to the INS.
In addition, Mr. Long said most Salvadorans who reach Buffalo are intent on reaching Canada anyway, and may not consider remaining in the United States. They may want to continue their journey to Canada because of uncertainity about the permanence of the new program.
"If they are not strongly committed to staying in the U.S.," he said, "my personal feeling is that it is probably advantageous to keep on going because of the permanent position they can achieve in Canada."
Bulger of the INS, however, emphasized that his agency is making the new policy available as a way to help war refugees, not to identify illegal aliens. He said the agency's record during the recent amnesty program should encourage participation.