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Salvadorans anxiously await federal decision on their temporary protection from deportation

FILE: A woman walks past a mural commemorating slain El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero near 
Vermont Avenue and Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. with temporary protection from deportation, or TPS, await a Trump administration decision on their status.
FILE: A woman walks past a mural commemorating slain El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero near Vermont Avenue and Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. with temporary protection from deportation, or TPS, await a Trump administration decision on their status.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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The largest group of immigrants in the United States with temporary permission to live in the country will soon find out if they will lose their legal status after nearly 20 years.

About 55,000 Salvadorans with temporary protected status, or TPS, are believed to reside in Southern California. They make up a large segment of the roughly 260,000 Salvadorans in the country who are shielded from deportation under the special status.

The Trump administration is expected to announce in the next few days whether it will eliminate TPS for Salvadoran nationals. Federal officials must announce within 60 days of the expiration date if their status will be renewed. The Salvadorans' current protection expires March 9. 

TPS is typically granted to immigrants living in the U.S. from nations that have experienced crises like natural disasters or war. Salvadoran immigrants were granted the protected status in 2001 following two devastating earthquakes in their homeland. Temporary protected status is typically renewed every 18 months, allowing those who have it to live and work in the country legally.

In recent months, the Trump administration has moved to end TPS for other groups. Salvador Sanabria, director of the local Salvadoran immigrant aid group El Rescate, said the handwriting is on the wall.

"Listen, the policy is very clear from this administration," Sanabria said. "They already canceled TPS for Haiti, they canceled TPS for Nicaragua ... they left Hondurans in limbo, granting them a six-month extension while they make a decision. So, what can you expect for El Salvador?"

The administration announced in November it will terminate protected status for more than 5,000 Nicaraguans in the U.S., effective January 2019. It also announced that about 60,000 Haitians would lose their temporary status in July 2019. 

TPS for about 86,000 Hondurans nationwide was set to expire this Jan. 5, but immigration officials announced a six-month extension while they determine if conditions in the Central American nation warrant another extension.

Bernardino Claros, a Salvadoran-born local business owner in South Los Angeles with temporary protective status, said his fellow immigrants are anxiously awaiting the Trump administration decision.

"Some people are talking about packing their bags," said Claros, a former journalist who operates a small television and radio production company. "But I'm not. I'm hoping for a positive response. And if it's not, as they have said, it will not be an immediate action."

But just in case, he said, he's already consulted with an immigration attorney about his legal options. 

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank that advocates for immigration restrictions, said TPS was never meant to be a permanent solution for immigrants. 

But he said he would not be opposed to a legislative plan that would benefit those who have lived in the country for many years.

"I'm actually OK with upgrading the Salvadoran TPS holders to full green-card status — only, though, as part of a package that makes sure no one ends up getting that kind of benefit in the future, ever," Krikorian said. 

Sanabria with El Rescate said many Salvadoran TPS holders arrived decades ago, during the civil war in El Salvador that lasted throughout the 1980s and ended in 1992. Many could not qualify for asylum, so TPS became their only option to live legally in the U.S.

With continuing instability and gang violence in El Salvador, Sanabria does not expect many TPS holders to return to their homeland. Those who are able, he said, will seek other ways to remain in the U.S., such as sponsorship from immediate relatives.

For those without alternatives, Sanabria said their "only other option will be to remain below the radar here, and stay in the United States, because going back is not an option." 

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman said by email that "no decision has been made regarding the TPS status of El Salvador. The deadline is Monday."