Tens of thousands of Haitians living temporarily in the U.S. after a devastating earthquake could lose their permission to remain in the country next year, shaking thousands of others with similar status, including many Central Americans residing in Los Angeles.
The special status called Temporary Protective Status or TPS is granted to immigrants from certain countries that have been stricken by a crisis like war or natural disaster and who cannot safely return to their home country. Their status allows them to live and work legally in this country, and is typically renewable every 18 months.
But close to 60,000 immigrants from Haiti who became eligible for TPS after the 2010 earthquake have been told that their protected status will expire in six months without any guarantee of another extension. Federal officials suggested the immigrants start making preparations to leave.
“This six-month extension should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States," Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a statement in May.
Kelly said officials would "re-evaluate the designation for Haiti and decide anew whether extension, re-designation, or termination is warranted."
The notice to Haitians is worrying Central Americans from El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua who together number roughly 350,000 and represent the largest group of TPS holders.
Some in Los Angeles's large Central American community say they fear they will be targeted next.
"I would rather be undocumented than be deported to my country," said Evelyn Hernandez, who arrived from El Salvador in 1992.
Hernandez said she first sought asylum in the U.S., but her case was denied because she came just after the civil war ended in her country. She eventually received Temporary Protected Status, which allowed her to live and work in the U.S. legally.
Hernandez said after 25 years in the U.S., she has much invested here. She is married and has three children, two in college. She works as an organizer for the Central American Resource Center, a local assistance group for Central American immigrants.
She said she would like to have permanent rather than temporary legal status so she can continue to legally live in the U.S.. She could try to adjust her status through her U.S. citizen husband, but it would involve going back to El Salvador for as many as 10 years as she waits for approval. It's something she's not willing to risk.
In recent years, rampant gang violence has driven many more Salvadorans north.
"During the time I was growing up, it was the civil war," Hernandez said. "Now, it is a war against the gangs. One of my sisters, they killed her son because he didn't want to join a gang."
Hernandez said the possibility of losing her protected status and being forced to return is terrifying.
"Why would I want to go back to El Salvador?" she said. "So that after three days or a week or a month, they kill me, or my family?"
But critics of TPS say that while conditions are harsh in countries like El Salvador and Haiti, ranked by the World Bank as the poorest nation in the Americas, the protected status was never intended as a long-term immigration solution.
“It was always meant to be temporary, and they should never had had another other expectation," said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director for the Center for Immigration Studies, an immigration-restriction advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Vaughan said the idea of TPS, as created by Congress in 1990, was to give immigrant safe haven only as long as the conditions that precluded them from returning persisted.
"I don't think Congress ever envisioned that certain groups would have it for almost 20 years," she said.
Currently, 439,625 beneficiaries from 13 nations hold TPS nationwide, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. More than half are from El Salvador. The second-largest group comes from Honduras, followed by Haiti and then Nepal.
Central American immigrant advocates have been pushing for a path to permanent residency for longtime TPS holders. But given Republican control of Congress and President Trump's support for stricter immigration, that effort is unlikely to go far.
Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, plan to rally this Saturday at the federal building in downtown Los Angeles in support of extended TPS for Haitians and other immigrants.