How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Temporary protected' status immigrants hope to be included in immigration reform

Photo by Ryan Vaarsi/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A man waits to cross Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles' Westlake neighborhood, a hub for Central American immigrants. The majority of U.S. immigrants with temporary protected status, known as TPS, are from Central America.

When El Salvador's long civil war ended in 1992, Evelyn Hernandez said she saw few opportunities. So at 18, she left her homeland and came to the United States, settling in Los Angeles.

"I didn’t have any future in my country," she said. "My parents couldn’t give me any support for my education.”

She has found the better life that she was seeking here, but has not been able to get permanent legal immigrant status.

Her request for asylum was turned down. When tragedy struck again in El Salvador, in the shape of deadly earthquakes in 2001, Hernandez and other Salvadorans who were here became eligible for temporary protected status

The U.S. has granted this special status for more than 20 years to people from countries where war or disaster pose a danger. TPS, as it's called, covers limited groups of immigrants from eight countries right now: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. The majority who are here under protected status are from El Salvador, many of them living in Los Angeles's huge Salvadoran community.

Hernandez said this special protection has allowed her to live — more or less — like other immigrants with legal status for about the last decade.

"This is a big, big, huge opportunity we have," said Hernandez, who went to school to learn computer skills after arriving in the U.S. "We can work legally in this country, we can get a driver's license, we can buy a house here."

But there's a big catch: Hernandez's legal status remains temporary, renewable every 18 months. The nation's roughly 300,000 TPS holders have no path to permanent legal status or citizenship. 

Hernandez, who lives in Koreatown, is married to a U.S. citizen. They have three kids. But she can't adjust her status because she entered without papers. Like other TPS holders, she can't sponsor relatives, so she can't bring her aging parents from El Salvador to live with her. 

TPS holders can get special permission to visit their native countries for a family emergency, but Hernandez is afraid to leave because she has an an old deportation order on record, the result of her failed asylum bid years ago.

She hasn't seen them in 20 years, she said. "I wish I could be there any day."

Hernandez is hoping for a change as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez — one of eight senators working on a reform bill — has brought up the possibility of expedited citizenship for those under temporary protected status. He recently told La Opinion these immigrants "should have some possibility to change their status in a quicker manner."

Advocates want TPS holders to get credit for the time they've already spent in provisional legal status, said Daniel Sharp, legal director at L.A.'s Central American Resource Center. The path to citizenship currently proposed for undocumented immigrants would have them spend years in provisional status and jump through a series of hoops before they can receive permanent legal status.

"If the idea is to make legalization applicants go through background checks, work, pay taxes, do these things, TPS holders have already done that," Sharp said.

Some conservative lawmakers have suggested a limited form of legal status for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented — and it would be very much like TPS, Sharp  said. He calls the status a "legal/life limbo."

Salvadorans who fled the civil war to the U.S. were among the first to receive temporary protected status when the U.S. started providing it in 1991. Many of those Salvadorans obtained permanent legal status through a 1997 immigration law. Hernandez didn't qualify because she was not yet under TPS

So she and other TPS holders from Central America and elsewhere remain in legal limbo. If a country's TPS designation ends, immigrants from that county lose their protected status and are again subject to deportation.

Many Honduran and Nicaraguan immigrants have lived in immigration limbo under TPS since Hurricane Mitch devastated both countries in 1998. Last week the U.S. gave Honduran and Nicaraguan TPS holders an 18-month extension until January 2015. Salvadorans are due for another extension soon. 

Vivian Panting, the former Honduran consul general in Los Angeles, said Central American immigrant advocates are worried TPS holders could be passed over as other groups move to the front of the line for permanent legal status.

"They have been in the system, paying taxes, renewing their work permits every 18 months," Panting says. "They work, they speak English and they know the system. They have been in this society, giving to this country, and we think they deserve to be included and given priority to have a green card."

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