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Thousands of immigrants who work in LA fear they'll lose permission to remain in US

FILE: A woman walks past a mural commemorating slain El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero near 
Vermont Avenue and Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, a Salvadoran community hub known as
FILE: A woman walks past a mural commemorating slain El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero near Vermont Avenue and Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, a Salvadoran community hub known as "Monseñor Oscar Romero Square."
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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The Trump administration announced this week it will end the temporary permission granted more than 5,000 Nicaraguan immigrants to live in the United States.

They are the tip of the iceberg.

Tens of thousands of Salvadorans and Hondurans in Los Angeles with similar permissions could lose their livelihoods and ability to remain in the country. Officials have yet to decide their fate but the decision on Nicaraguans could be a sign of things to come.

Immigrants with what is known as temporary protected status, or TPS, were granted their protection after natural disasters and wars devastated their homelands. Some have lived in the U.S. for almost two decades.

The temporary status for about 86,000 Hondurans nationwide was set to expire Jan. 5, as with the Nicaraguans. Nationals of both countries became eligible to live in the U.S. following Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Immigration officials said Tuesday they are still reviewing conditions in Honduras to determine if their permissions will end. Meanwhile, the Hondurans were given a six-month extension on their temporary status.

A final decision on their fate will be made later, one that could have federal officials canceling the Hondurans' temporary status to live in the U.S. as they did with the Nicaraguans. 

About 60,000 Haitians were given just a six-month extension last summer. The Trump administration advised the Haitians to begin getting their affairs in order and to prepare to leave when their status expires in late January. It's unclear if their permissions will be extended again.

Salvadorans, the largest group by far with nearly 270,000 with temporary status living throughout the country, will hear about their protection soon, possibly in January. Federal officials will decide whether to extend Salvadorans' TPS permissions beyond March, when they are set to expire.

The Pew Research Center estimates there are about 262,000 foreign-born Salvadorans living in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area, along with about 35,000 foreign-born Hondurans.

It's not clear how many have been granted temporary status.

Salvadoran immigrant Bernardino Claros arrived in the United States in 1996, four years after the end of El Salvador's lengthy civil war.

The former journalist arrived on a visa and overstayed. He quickly learned that as an unauthorized immigrant with no permission to work legally, his choices were limited.

"I had no option than to go into construction," Claros said in Spanish. "I became a carpenter, although I'd never done that ... without losing sight of what I really wanted to do, which was work in communications."

His fortunes changed in 2001, when El Salvador was struck by a devastating earthquake. Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. became eligible for temporary protected status.

Those who obtain the temporary status may remain in the U.S. legally and obtain work permits, with their protection typically renewed every 18 months.

With a legal work permit in hand, Claros was able to find a TV production job. He saved up and founded his own small television and radio production company in South Los Angeles, which he still owns today.

"Once I had TPS, that I had a work permit and a Social Security number. I was able to become a businessman," Claros said. 

Salvador Sanabria, who directs El Rescate, a Salvadoran community organization near downtown L.A., said there is fear among residents that their temporary permissions will soon end.

"The effect will be devastating, not only for those families residing here in Southern California, but also the shock wave that it will send to the region by people losing their jobs," he said.

With their temporary status, Salvadorans also received working permits. Without legal jobs, the amount of money the Salvadorans can send to family back home will be affected, Sanabria said.

He said conditions in El Salvador have further deteriorated in recent years, with gang violence driving new migrants north.

"The economic and public safety conditions have worsened in that country," Sanabria said. "So there are no conditions for that country to receive about 200,000 people being removed from the U.S."

Similar conditions exist in Honduras that, according to a U.S. State Department travel warning, has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

"We have supported the economy in this country for 20 years," said Cecilia Rodriguez with the Alianza Hondureña de Los Angeles, a Honduran community group. "They are homeowners, they are business owners."

She said Honduran TPS holders in Los Angeles work in industries that include construction, trucking and home care, the sector she works in. All could feel the impact if temporary permissions come to an end.

Claros, the Salvadoran business owner, said he still has to figure out how he would conduct business if he lost his work permit. Unauthorized immigrants can technically work within the law if they are self-employed, although they are subject to deportation. But he employs several others, including a couple of workers with temporary status.

Economist Christopher Thornberg with Beacon Economics said if those with temporary permissions were to lose their work permits, at least most have been living and working in the country a long time. 

"These are folks with established reputations and established connections," Thornberg said. "They will easily go underground and find employment somewhere else in the economy." 

Companies that have employed the workers might look for a way to keep them on as independent contractors, he said.

Critics of the temporary protected status program say the immigrants should have never received work permits in the first place. 

"The point to TPS is that it gives work permits — it is a kind of foot in the door that is difficult to remove once it happens, or has been difficult to remove," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a think tank that advocates for restricted immigration.