As the U.S. Senate gears up to deal with immigration reform, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are facing a deadline that could lead to a sharp deterioration of their condition here.

About 300,000 Central Americans, most of them Salvadorans, are allowed to stay in this country legally under a special “Temporary Protected Status” negotiated between the United States and their home governments. They were here without documents when Honduras and Nicaragua were struck by major hurricanes in 1998 and when El Salvador was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2001.

The Temporary Protected Status (TPS) has been renewed several times. If it were to end and the persons covered by it were deported, El Salvador especially would not be able to deal with the sudden addition of 220,000 people to its labor force, in a country of only 6,900,000 inhabitants. Also, Salvadorans living in the United States, including TPS people, send home over $2.5 billion each year in family remittances, which would be reduced if the TPS people were deported.

All three countries are desperately dependent on TPS, and this gives the United States leverage over their governments. Many Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. believe that the otherwise nonsensical presence of a contingent of Salvadoran troops helping the U.S. in Iraq must surely be a quid pro quo for the continued extensions of TPS.

The United States has also used the TPS program to manipulate Salvadoran internal politics. During the campaign for the March 2004 presidential election, the U.S. government put out the word that if FMLN party candidate Shafik Handal were to win, TPS would be canceled. The presidency went to right-winger Antonio Saca.

Anti-immigrant forces in the U.S. demand that the TPS program be ended and its participants be deported. Nevertheless, this week Haiti requested that Haitian immigrants be brought under a Temporary Protected Status, and last year Guatemala made the same request after heavy damage from hurricanes. Colombia and Pakistan have made similar requests

Anti-immigrant spokespeople claim that the TPS people are not really refugees from natural disasters, but from poverty and underdevelopment. In this they are probably to some extent right, but draw the wrong conclusions. El Salvador would be an economic basket case with or without earthquakes. The whole Latin America and Caribbean area has been struck by a disaster bigger than any hurricane or earthquake, namely the neoliberal “free trade” and privatization policies imposed on them by the wealthier countries, especially the United States, and the international lending institutions.

Every one of these countries now under TPS or requesting a similar program has been damaged by policies that have devastated local agriculture and industry in favor of large-scale transnational monopoly capitalism. And this has hit other countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.

The ultimate ending of the need for TPS lies in the abandonment of these failed development models by the countries of origin, and their integration into the new economic and political order in Latin America that is being spearheaded by Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and now Bolivia.

Area governments are imploring President Bush to extend the program, but according to a story in the Miami Herald on Jan. 17, the Department of Homeland Security is campaigning against this, and Bush might try to fold TPS into his “guest worker” program. This would turn TPS immigrants into an easily controllable labor source for Big Business in this country, but very likely would prevent them from ever becoming U.S. citizens and full-fledged members of U.S. society.

If TPS is canceled, will El Salvador pull its troops out of Iraq? Will governments in the area defect from the Central America Free Trade Area and join the new regional economic system that the Venezuelans and their allies are building? I hope so. A good sign that all the regional presidents were willing to denounce the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 16.

Progressive people in the United States have a responsibility to try to overturn the U.S. trade and economic policies that force millions of people to uproot themselves and cross distant borders just to make a living. We must also stop our government from interfering in elections in other countries, which is likely to happen with the Mexican election also.

Meanwhile, the demand should be that TPS people not be turned into guest workers with few or no labor or civil rights, but rather be fully legalized and allowed to eventually become U.S. citizens if they want to. As legal permanent residents and citizens, these workers can much more easily join unions and demand decent wages and working conditions, not only for themselves but for their fellow workers of whatever race or origin. Under President Bush’s guest worker plan, they will be impeded from doing this, which is bad for them and undercuts the position of other U.S. workers.