The U.S. government yesterday announced an 18-month extension of a program that has given legal residence to about 250,000 Salvadoran immigrants while their country recovers from a pair of powerful earthquakes.
The program, which provides "temporary protected status," was opened to Salvadorans in March 2001 after the devastating temblors. It has been extended twice before.
The TPS program is so important to El Salvador that its president, Tony Saca, is scheduled to begin a campaign today in Washington urging immigrants to re-register. Salvadoran officials estimate that immigrants with TPS sent home nearly $1 billion last year, or about 40 percent of the nation's remittances.
Yesterday's announcement was expected after the recent extension of a TPS program for immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua, which were battered by a 1998 hurricane. In recent days, U.S. officials pondered granting a similar benefit to immigrants from South Asia whose countries were ravaged by the tsunami, but ultimately decided against it, according to a source at the Department of Homeland Security who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the Washington area, home to the second-largest population of Salvadorans in the United States, immigrants were jubilant about the extension.
"I think it's great. I only hope that the next step could be permanent residency for these people," said Luis Romero, president of Salvadoreños Asociados de Maryland, a community group.
To opponents of the measure, however, such expectations are the problem. They said the extension would allow people to sink deeper roots into U.S. society, making it harder to send them home eventually.
"We're a generous people. We're always thinking of trying to help people in trouble. But usually what happens is these people are here illegally," said Bill Buchanan of the American National Committee for Immigration Reform. "There is a point at which the disaster [in their homeland] is ameliorated."
In reviewing El Salvador's recovery from the 2001 earthquakes, U.S. diplomats found that nearly half the people who lost housing in the disaster are still without permanent shelter, according to a statement yesterday from Homeland Security. Reconstruction of damaged hospitals is not expected to be completed until 2007, the statement said.
The agency said the 248,282 Salvadorans who qualify for the extension have 60 days to re-register, starting today. U.S. officials urged immigrants to start the process soon, because they will have to visit special service centers for photos and fingerprinting required for new permits with biometrics.
Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group in the Washington area, numbering nearly 105,000 in the 2000 Census. Salvadoran Ambassador Rene Leon, who believes the population is much larger, said his embassy will be working with local community organizations to re-register immigrants. One group, Carecen, has scheduled an information session on TPS at 3 p.m. tomorrow at its Washington office, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW.
"If you don't register early . . . your work permit can be late" in arriving, Leon warned. However, U.S. officials said they would change the expiration date for current permits from March 9, 2005, to Sept. 9, 2005, allowing time for documents to be distributed.
More information is available at the hotline for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 800-375-5283.