LOS ANGELES (AP) — Iris Acosta has spent the last two decades enrolled in an immigration program that has helped her get a work permit, put three children through school in her native Honduras and obtain health insurance to cover her cancer treatment.
Now, the 51-year-old hotel housekeeper from Los Angeles fears it could all come to an abrupt halt.
Acosta is one of about 400,000 immigrants who have been allowed to remain here under a little-known humanitarian program that could be on shaky ground in President Donald Trump’s administration as it comes up for renewal in the coming months for many of its recipients.
The beneficiaries — many who came to the country illegally from Honduras and El Salvador — worry the administration will phase out their access to the program and deport them to countries where they haven’t lived in years.
“I don’t know what I’d do in my country,” said Acosta, who has lived nearly half her life in the United States. “I have nothing there.”
The program known as Temporary Protected Status is geared toward countries ravaged by natural disasters or war. It is a temporary fix for immigrants without legal status, much like the more widely known Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to protect from deportation immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — an initiative Trump recently ended.
Ten countries are currently designated for the program, with more than 70 percent either from El Salvador or Honduras, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The program was created by law, but the Trump administration decides which countries should participate and for how long.
When the federal government taps a country for the program, its citizens already in the United States are allowed to remain and work here, regardless of how they came. They can’t bring family to join them, and immigrants who arrive later are not allowed to sign up.
The U.S. government offered the status to Hondurans and Nicaraguans after their countries were decimated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and to Salvadorans after a deadly 2001 earthquake. The idea was to let immigrants work and send money back to help relatives recover from the damage and not burden the countries with a large number of deportees.
While the status was meant to be temporary, it was repeatedly renewed by the Bush and Obama administrations over concerns the countries could not shoulder the return of so many people. As a result, some immigrants have been allowed to stay in the U.S. for nearly 20 years.
The program is up for renewal again in the coming months, with decisions on Honduras and Nicaragua expected by early November.
Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have not said what the administration plans to do. The Homeland Security Secretary will review country conditions and make a decision at least 60 days before each country’s status expires.
The Trump administration has stepped up immigration enforcement and signaled it could take a harder line on the program.
Since taking office, Trump has ended the program for Sudan and issued a shorter-than-usual renewal for Haiti, which was designated after a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Immigrant advocates are trying to raise awareness about the program and pressure lawmakers and businesses to lobby the administration to keep it. Unions and immigrant rights groups held rallies and a vigil last week in Washington and Los Angeles.
Still, the program has received scant attention compared to the soon-to-expire DACA program for young immigrants — many of whom are college-educated, American-raised, politically connected and internet-savvy. In contrast, those with temporary protected status often work in housekeeping or construction and lack the political clout of their DACA counterparts.
“This is working population through and through,” said Cecilia Menjivar, a professor of sociology at University of Kansas, who has done research on those covered by the program.
Acosta came to the United States illegally in 1992 after she couldn’t make ends meet at her job at a pool hall in Honduras. She started as a housekeeper in different homes, but once she had a work permit she got a formal job with steady pay and benefits.
She was also able to help her mother and children recover from the hurricane. They were evacuated before the storm hit but lost most of their belongings when their Tegucigalpa apartment flooded.
Erick Midence, a 58-year-old in Oxnard, California, said the program helped him grow his construction business and stop living in fear of immigration authorities.
“Though some suffered misfortune, others of us were helped by Hurricane Mitch,” said Midence, also from Honduras.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the program needs to be overhauled so it can be returned to its temporary nature. One alternative, he said, would be to let immigrants who have had the work permits a long time remain but place legislative checks on how the program is used in future crises.
“It is the only way you can avoid this absurd situation where people are here temporarily for 20 years,” Krikorian said.
As immigrants in the program brace for changes, some are taking advantage of favorable rulings in two U.S. circuit courts that let them apply for green cards here. The rulings apply to those who are married to Americans or who have adult children who are U.S. citizens.
Midence, for one, is exploring the idea since his children are now in their 20s and 30s and have U.S. citizenship.
But for many, it’s not an option. Salvadoran immigrant Edwin Murillo relies on the status to run his construction business and raise his 10- and 4-year-old daughters in Dallas.
“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said Murillo, 42, who has lived in the United States for nearly two decades. “But we are really afraid.”
This story has been corrected to show that Acosta’s first name is Iris, not Irma.