- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

MIAMI (AP) — Special temporary U.S. residency issued to thousands of Central Americans is due to expire in the coming months, and with the debate over immigration becoming increasingly fierce, many immigrants fear they will be sent home.

The temporary status granted to Nicaraguans and Hondurans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and to Salvadorans after a devastating earthquake in 2001 has been renewed repeatedly with little public debate, but opposition is growing.

Critics say that 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 that an expiration of the special status would devastate these people and their families, as well as the Central American countries that count on the billions of dollars the refugees 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, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations.

Temporary protected status (TPS) — which is not officially a visa and does not lead to permanent legal residency — is coming under debate 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 will 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 Mrs. de la Rosa was when the earthquake hit, to stay when extraordinary conditions make it temporarily unsafe to return.

“If they take away the TPS, will they just come and deport me?” asked Mrs. de la Rosa, who now has a 2-year-old son born in Hollywood, Fla. She says her mother and daughter in El Salvador depend on the several hundred dollars she sends each month.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, said the issue goes beyond disaster victims. The rise in several South American nations of left-wing governments that often employ anti-American rhetoric makes it all the more important for Central American leaders to be able to cite the benefits of U.S. friendship.

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