How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

With extension of temporary protection, Central Americans hope for a long-term solution

Westlake Theater

Corey Bridwell/KPCC

The Westlake neighborhood near MacArthur Park is home to L.A.'s largest concentration of Central Americans, many of who are here legally under federal temporary protected status.

Homeland Security has granted another 18 months of temporary protected status to two groups of Central American immigrants, Hondurans and Nicaraguans, who obtained TPS following Hurricane Mitch in 1998. But as the debate over comprehensive immigration reform continues in Washington, many TPS holders are hoping for something more permanent. 

On Wednesday, federal officials announced the most recent of many TPS extensions for Hondurans and Nicaraguans. This gives them until January 2015 to continue living and working legally in the United States, as do the rest of the roughly 300,000 immigrants living under this special status who have faced imminent danger in their native countries. 

Although TPS beneficiaries live and work here legally, their protected status doesn't automatically lead to permanent resident status or citizenship. This is something that local Central American immigrant leaders, who gathered Thursday in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park, said they hope will change now that some Senate lawmakers have proposed expedited citizenship for TPS  holders as part of immigration reform.

"These are people that have been residents of the United States for the past decade," said Salvador Sanabria, executive director of El Rescate, a non-profit that provides free legal and other assistance to Central Americans in Los Angeles. "They have submitted to police background checks. They have paid their federal taxes...It logical to think that expediting their processing on the  eve of an immigration reform will be a great contribution for them."

Also, because they must re-register every 18 months and pay fees accordingly, the nation's TPS holders have paid hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of fees to the federal government over the years, Sanabria said.

Since the early 1990s, TPS has been granted to different groups of immigrants in U.S. who came illegally following natural or man-made disasters at home. The first were Salvadorans fleeing civil war in the 1980s; in the late '90s, it was granted to Hondurans and Nicaraguans here in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, then again to more Salvadorans following deadly earthquakes there in 2001. Later groups of TPS beneficiaries have included Haitians, Syrians, Somalians, Sudanese and South Sudanese, although the majority are Central American.

This doesn't mean that all immigrants from these countries are protected, as TPS only applies to those who were already in the U.S. during a set time frame. And while these immigrants are shielded from deportation and have work permits, they can't sponsor relatives or travel abroad to their native countries without advance permission and under special circumstances, such as a family emergency.

If a country's TPS designation ends, individuals formerly protected would have their immigration status revert to what it was before, meaning many would have no legal status.

The latest TPS extension covers only Hondurans and Nicaraguans, a small minority in Los Angeles. Salvadoran immigrants account for the majority of TPS holders in Southern California.

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