Temporary migrant’s stay may end soon

After starting out as an illegal border crosser more than a decade ago, Elwin is content with his life as a legal immigrant in San Antonio — he makes enough to live comfortably while sustaining his extended family back in Honduras.

In fact, he had hoped his work ethic and law-abiding attitude would eventually land him a coveted “green card,” giving him permanent residency. But a bureaucratic debate in Washington could kill the program that has kept him legal, and Salinas soon may be forced to rejoin the underground world of undocumented migrants.

“I work hard, stay out of trouble, pay my taxes,” said Elwin, 31, who requested that his last name be withheld. “All I’m missing is the residency. I think I deserve it.”

Nearly 300,000 other Central Americans — around 220,000 Salvadorans, 70,000 Hondurans and 4,000 Nicaraguans — are in the same legal limbo, fearing they’ll soon have to choose between going home or staying in the country illegally.

They are participants in the government’s “temporary protected status” immigration category and are allowed to live and work here, but they’re not residents — they don’t even hold visas.

The program, created in 1990 and since transferred from the Justice Department to the Department of Homeland Security, was meant to give a break to immigrants already in the United States deemed unable to return to homelands wracked by civil wars or natural disasters.

It was the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua in 1998 that prompted the U.S. government to offer TPS to citizens of those countries.

The status lasts a maximum of 18 months, but for some nationalities it has been renewed several times, giving participants a certain comfort in thinking they’d eventually be allowed to stay permanently.

But after hearing that the program may expire, immigrants — and their government representatives — have been scrambling to deal with the news.

Around 4,000 Africans — from Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and Burundi — are also in the program, but the proposed change would not affect them.

Officially, the U.S. government line is that, just like any other year the program has been up for renewal, a decision will be made two months before the expiration date (July 5 for Hondurans and Nicaraguans and Sept. 9 for Salvadorans).

But privately, officials said a heated debate on whether to extend or scrap the program is taking place between State Department and Homeland Security Department officials.

“It’s a fair characterization that there’s a healthy debate about TPS,” said a homeland security official who asked not to be named. “Views differ on whether government services should continue to trump security and enforcement.”

The discussion includes concerns that the government is not being fair to citizens of other countries who may have a legitimate argument that they should be included, such as earthquake-ravaged Pakistan, politically unstable Haiti and Colombia, home to a decades-long struggle between the government and rebels.

At stake for Central American countries is not only the possibility of being overwhelmed by a sudden influx of thousands of deportees, but also an economic crisis threatened by a cut in the dollars migrants send back home.

For these countries, such remittances from abroad represent the top source of outside income.

“We’re still the second-poorest country in the hemisphere (after Haiti) and we appeal to the tolerance and support of the United States,” said Salvador Stadthagen, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States. “It would be nearly impossible for us to reintegrate so many people back to the country.”

As the Bush administration and Congress continue to mull a guest worker program, immigrants under TPS would present an ideal starting pool of candidates, Stadthagen said: They’re already in the country legally, some with children born here.

And, he added, they don’t present any security threat. The government knows where to find them.

One way or another, officials eventually will have to make up their minds, because perennial renewals of the program in post-9-11 society simply will not work, said Deborah Meyers, senior analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank.

A stand-alone decision on the matter is unlikely, she said, noting that it will probably end up as another item up for debate in Congress’ discussion over comprehensive immigration reform.

Meanwhile, migrants currently under TPS will continue to bite their nails and wait it out.

But some say they’ve got one matter clear: If the government ends the program, they’re sticking around.

“There’s nothing back home — no work, no money,” said a Salvadoran migrant under TPS who lives and works in Austin and who asked to remain anonymous.

“Even if it’s risky to stay without papers, I’ll be better as an illegal here than a poor soul back home.”