Debate begins over US temporary residency to Central Americans

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Special, temporary U.S. residency issued to thousands of Central Americans is due to expire in the coming months, and many of the immigrants fear they will be sent home.

The temporary status granted to Nicaraguans and Hondurans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and to Salvadorans following a devastating earthquake in 2001 has been renewed repeatedly with little public debate, but opposition is growing.

Critics say the program was never meant to be permanent and that it's time for the more than 300,000 people it protects to return home.

Immigrants and their advocates say allowing the special status to expire would devastate not only these individuals but also their families — and the Central American countries themselves — who count on the billions of dollars they earn in the United States and send home.

"We haven't seen this kind of debate in years. This is an election year, and this is a high-profile issue," said Ana Navarro, a Miami-based political consultant and former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations.

She noted that the debate over the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — which is not officially a visa and does not lead to permanent legal residency — comes as at least four bills to control immigration are circulating in Washington.

The Department of Homeland Security must decided whether to renew the TPS for Nicaraguans and Hondurans by May and for Salvadorans by July. There are 220,000 Salvadorans, 70,000 Hondurans and 3,600 Nicaraguans in the U.S. under the program. About 4,000 Africans are covered by similar permits.