The Department of Homeland Security yesterday announced an 18-month extension for Hondurans and Nicaraguans who were granted temporary U.S. residence after a devastating hurricane in their homelands. The department also said it was "favorably disposed" to extend a similar program for Salvadorans.

The U.S. government originally gave temporary protected status to the Central American immigrants because they would face difficulties returning home after the damage caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and by earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001.

The protected status has allowed hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were in this country illegally at the time to get work permits. The program announced after Hurricane Mitch has been renewed four times and covers nearly 82,000 Hondurans and 4,300 Nicaraguans. It had been slated to expire in January. But the Homeland Security statement said those countries "remain unable . . . to handle adequately the return" of their citizens.

Nearly 300,000 Salvadorans also have the protected status. Their permits expire in March 2005, and many Salvadorans have been campaigning for an extension.

The announcement from Homeland Security said that it was "favorably disposed to considering an extension for El Salvador if the country conditions there warrant." It added that the earthquake damage there was similar to the devastation suffered by Honduras and Nicaragua in the 1998 hurricane.

An area activist reacted jubilantly to the statement, saying it indicated that Homeland Security would grant the continuation.

"It is good to know the Central Americans will be protected," said Saul Solorzano, executive director of CARECEN, an agency in Columbia Heights that helps Latin American immigrants.

Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group in the Washington area, with about 105,000 counted in the 2000 Census. The Salvadoran Embassy believes the total is far larger. The Census numbers reflect smaller communities of Hondurans and Nicaraguans -- about 14,000 and 8,400 people, respectively.

Some immigrants had worried that their protected status would be terminated after the U.S. government recently ended a similar program for about 300 people from the island of Montserrat.

"We're so happy. The phones have not stopped ringing," said Jose Lagos, the Florida-based leader of Unidad Hondurena, a national Honduran group. His group is pressing for a law that would provide permanent legal status for those in the temporary program.

Hondurans and Nicaraguans can re-register for the program during a 60-day period that began yesterday. More information is available at the hotline for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 800-375-583.