March 15, 2013— -- An immigration reform bill being drafted in the Senate may offer an expedited path to citizenship to nearly 300,000 people who are currently in the U.S. under a temporary program designed to protect people who face physical danger in their own country.
The program in question is called Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and it allows people to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation if they follow the law. But the status offers no formal pathway to citizenship, and some immigrants have been here for decades without being able to apply for a green card.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of a bipartisan group working on a Senate immigration bill, told the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión on Tuesday that the details still weren't finalized, but that such a pathway should be considered as part of reform.
"I think that it's expected that these people, that have been here under a legal avenue, should have some possibility to change their status in a quicker manner," Menendez said. "[We] haven't reach a final agreement in respect to that."
The program, which was part of a large-scale immigration law passed in 1990, gives certain immigrants who are already in the U.S. a way to remain in the country if they face imminent dangers in their home country, such as a civil war or a natural disaster. Temporary Protected Status was born because existing refugee and asylum programs weren't adequately addressing the needs of immigrants fleeing countries like El Salvador, which was enmeshed in civil war in the 1980s and early '90s, according to Anwen Hughes, senior counsel at Human Rights First, a nonpartisan group that works on immigration issues. Two-thirds of people living in the country under TPS are Salvadorean.
"People who were fleeing regimes the U.S. supported were not being granted refugee protection here," she said. "[They] were being denied pretty much en masse."
When a country is designated with Temporary Protected Status -- eight currently hold it -- those foreign nationals in the U.S. at the time of the designation can apply for it, but the status does not lead to legal permanent residency. When TPS is revoked for a country, those immigrants can lose their protection against deportation and are expected to leave the country.
Some conservative critics have said that the program is problematic because it isn't actually temporary. Salvadorans, for example, were re-authorized for TPS after a series of earthquakes in 2001, and have been eligible for the status ever since. At this point, many Salvadorans with TPS have established roots in the U.S., so if that status was suddenly revoked, it could mean expelling residents who have been living and working in the country for decades.
According to a Reuters report earlier this week, the Senate group working on immigration reform is considering changes to the program, but details haven't emerged.