Debate heats up over temporary residency for Central Americans


Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 9:12 p.m.
MIAMI - Temporary U.S. residency issued to thousands of Central Americans is due to expire in the coming months, and with the debate over immigration increasingly fierce, many of the immigrants fear they will be sent home.
The temporary status granted to Nicaraguans and Hondurans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and to Salvadorans following an earthquake in 2001 has been renewed repeatedly with little public debate, but opposition is growing.
Critics say the program was never meant to be permanent and that it's time for the more than 300,000 people it protects to return home.
Immigrants and their advocates say allowing the special status to expire would devastate not only these individuals but also their families and countries who count on the billions of dollars they earn in the United States and send home.
"We haven't seen this kind of debate in years. This is an election year, and this is a high-profile issue," said Ana Navarro, a Miami-based political consultant and former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations.
She noted that the debate over the Temporary Protected Status - which is not officially a visa and does not lead to permanent legal residency - comes as at least four bills to control immigration are circulating in Washington.
The Department of Homeland Security must decide whether to renew the TPS for Nicaraguans and Hondurans by May and for Salvadorans by July. There are 220,000 Salvadorans, 70,000 Hondurans and 3,600 Nicaraguans in the U.S. under the program. About 4,000 Africans are covered by similar permits.
Waitress Iris de la Rosa, 33, said she doesn't know what she'll do if the protected status expires. She came to the United States illegally seven years ago from El Salvador because she couldn't support herself and her young daughter as a pharmacist's assistant.
She planned to stay only a few years, but took advantage of the TPS after the 2001 quake in her homeland. The permit allows immigrants who are already in the U.S., as de la Rosa was when the earthquake hit, to stay when extraordinary conditions make it temporarily unsafe to return.
If the program expires, TPS holders revert to their initial status.
"If they take away the TPS, will they just come and deport me?" asked de la Rosa, who now has a 2-year-old son born in Hollywood. She says her mother and daughter in El Salvador depend on the several hundred dollars she sends back each month.
De la Rosa said she likely would stay even if she loses the protection but hates the thought of becoming an illegal immigrant again. "Now I pay my taxes. I have a driver's license. I'm not worried that someone is going to pull me over at any minute," she said.
The nonprofit Central American Resource Center has been flooded with calls from people fearful they could lose their legal status.
"People ask us all the time, 'What's going to happen?"' said Daniel Sharp, legal director for the center in Los Angeles.
"It would be unfair to leave them out in the cold now," said Saul Solarzano, head of the center's Washington office.
Gerson Anzueto, 35, an employee at the Salvadoran restaurant El Atlacatl in Miami, said his girlfriend and several waitresses at his restaurant hold the temporary permit.
"This will have a big effect on employers, and not at just Salvadoran restaurants - Italian, you name it," said Anzueto, who is a permanent U.S. resident. "It's making people very scared."
The dilemma facing the Central Americans comes as other groups seek similar protection. Several Florida Republicans in Congress recently urged the Bush administration to offer Haitians TPS protection.
Some argue the U.S. should extend the protection to victims of other natural disasters, such as last year's earthquake in Pakistan.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said the issue goes beyond disasters. The rise of several populist governments in South America that often employ anti-American rhetoric makes it all the more important for Central American leaders to be able to cite the benefits of remaining U.S. allies, especially El Salvador and Nicaragua, where elections will be held this year.
El Salvador is the only Latin American country with troops in Iraq.
"These are friendly governments and neighboring governments that have been elected by their people," he said. "We should do whatever we can to support our friends in the region."
Central American leaders are lobbying hard for an extension, saying the damage caused by last year's Hurricane Stan alone should be reason enough.
De la Rosa acknowledges that she would rather stay in the United States because she can earn more than she could at home, and she doesn't have to worry about gang violence. If she were to return, she wonders what she and her government would do.
"There is still so little work, and if we all came back? What will they do with us?"
--- On the Net: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services http://uscis.gov/
--- Associated Press writers Anabelle Garay in Dallas and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top