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El Salvador's ambassador León both diplomat, community leader
The Washington Diplomat / September 2003

By Larry Luxner

René A. León, El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, likes to joke that if he ran for mayor of Washington, D.C., and all Salvadorans could vote, he'd probably win hands down.

It probably isn't much of an exaggeration. The Washington metro area is home to 500,000 immigrants from El Salvador, making it the nation's second-largest Salvadoran immigrant community after Los Angeles, with around 900,000.

In fact, an estimated 2 million salvadoreños live in the United States, an enormous number when you consider that El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America — even smaller than New Jersey — and has only six million inhabitants.

"One in every four Salvadorans lives in the United States, the greatest democracy in the world, and they send home $2 billion annually in remittances," said León. "This is 13% of our total GDP."

In addition to the United States, about 200,000 Salvadorans live in Canada (mainly Toronto and Ottawa). According to León, more than 50,000 have ended up in Brisbane, Australia, and another 45,000 in the Italian city of Milan.

León, who took up his post in 1997 at the age of 35, was interviewed last month at the Salvadoran Embassy on California Street. Above the fireplace mantle in his office are commemorative plates from the city of Las Vegas, the state of Utah, the College of Strategic Studies in San Salvador and the National Museum of Costa Rica.

And on the wall are photos of León posing with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and the current president of El Salvador, Francisco Flores. Other politicians are also represented in the photo collection, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), an outspoken opponent of Fidel Castro.

Yet León he and his 24 staffers spend a lot more time helping the local Salvadoran community than going to diplomatic receptions and cocktail parties.

"El Salvador has 32 embassies around the world, but is is the one where we do the most community diplomacy in the world — where the ambassador is as much connected with the local community as with the host government," he said.

Salvadorans can be found throughout the Washington metro area, but particularly in Silver Spring, Falls Church and Arlington. In fact, there's even a Chirilagua City — a neighborhood along Glebe Road in Arlington crammed with Salvadoran supermarkets, dressmaking shops, video stores, restaurants and hair salons.

León says close to 90% of these Salvadorans have some sort of legal status in the United States. Tens of thousands fled here during the country's 12-year civil war, in which over 70,000 people died. They were eventually granted legal status through NACARA (Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status).

"Many of them are either Salvadoran-Americans and in a position to enjoy both nationalities, while around 225,000 families qualify for U.S. residency under NACARA; another 290,000 individuals are protected under TPS. Others have political asylum or are here on student visas. Only10% of the Salvadoran population here is undocumented."

Following back-to-back earthquakes in early 2001 that left over 1,159 people dead, 8,122 injured and hundreds of thousands homeless, the U.S. government granted TPS for Salvadorans who arrived here on or before Feb. 13, 2001. That gave them 18 months to live and work in the United States.

The program was extended for an additional 12 months and was set to expire Sep. 9. But in July, the Department of Homeland Security announced there would be yet another 18-month extension, so the new TPS will expire Mar. 9, 2005. However, in order to enjoy those 18 additional months here, Salvadorans need to re-register by Sep. 15, which happens to be El Salvador's Independence Day.

"We've been doing a very exhaustive, intensive outreach effort throughout the United States," he said. "We've been from coast to coast — Boston, Long Island, Charlotte, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Kansas, Colorado, Salt Lake City and Miami."

And success stories abound. One Salvadoran named Manuel Montesinos, who was undocumented before TPS, now owns 10 taxicabs in the Atlanta area. Thousands of others own their own businesses — from restaurants and hair salons to security companies and video stores.

León said the concept of a mobile consulate involves "bringing the services that our citizens need closer to them."

"We have 11 consulates, and sometimes they are inefficient in coping with demand," he explained. "So we try to provide a better service to those who live on the outskirts of cities, or we simply go to emerging communities where we don't have consulates."

Usually, the consul-general, his second-in-command and his staff team up with local churches and non-governmental organizations and hold workshops in churches, schools and even restaurants. Services include the issuance of passports, powers of attorney, birth certificates and, of course, help with TPS registration.

The embassy also has a toll-free number answered in El Salvador for people who need information about TPS and NACARA in Spanish. Another program involves calling as many Salvadorans in the United States as possible, with a taped message from President Flores urging them to re-register by the Sep. 15 deadline.

"We have been able to make half a million calls with our president's message," said León, adding that "just for TPS, we process at least 50 people a day. It's not only an outreach effort, it's also good PR."

The ambassador said the entire project would have cost over $2 million had the embassy not received substantial donations from U.S. companies. Thanks to those corporate sponsorships, however, the embassy spent only $150,000.

It is, of course, in El Salvador's interest that immigrants remain in the United States and send remittances each year, rather than return to an overpopulated country with limited housing and job prospects. But in the long run, says León, the only solution is to boost the country's economy through greater trade integration with the Western Hemisphere.

El Salvador took one step toward that goal several years ago, with the decision to gradually replace its national currency, the colón, with the U.S. dollar.

León says proudly that "El Salvador is one of the few countries in Latin America that can issue bonds and debt. We don't have any exchange-rate risk or distortions in the economy, since all the prices are in dollars. Thanks to dollarization, we have the lowest interest rates in Latin America, and one of the lowest inflation rates in Central America."

El Salvador's per-capita income now averages $2,100, but still that's not enough, said León. He, along with the ambassadors of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, are negotiating with the United States to sign a Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that would remove all trade barriers between the United States and Central America — in the same way NAFTA has created a free-trade zone among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Six of nine negotiating rounds are already completed, and CAFTA talks will finish by year's end, said León, though getting Congress to approve the legislation so close to the 2004 elections won't be easy.

But approving it is in Washington's interest as well, he said.

"When the Salvadorans come here, they're looking for a better future. That's why we link the issue of immigration stability with CAFTA," León explained. "Whereas NACARA, TPS and all these other programs help us a lot, the flow of immigrants to the United States can only be regulated if we give Salvadorans and other Central Americans the opportunity to have dignified jobs in their own countries."

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