By Alistair Bell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Congress delves deeper into the immigration debate, members of both parties agree that an unloved system which gives temporary residence to nearly 300,000 foreigners in the United States is broken.
The program was introduced in 1990 to aid countries facing war or natural disaster, but immigrants who won the temporary status end up staying long after the crisis at home ends by rolling over their visas every 18 months.
Lawmakers and presidents have turned a blind eye to the loophole over the years so as not to lose Latino votes but they can no longer ignore it.
A congressional aide said a bipartisan group of senators is now studying changes to the Temporary Protected Status system, as it draws up legislation for a wider immigration reform sought by President Barack Obama.
Working out what to do with the mostly Central American temporary residents illustrates the breadth of the challenge in reshaping immigration law, a complex web of regulations and exceptions that has not been overhauled since 1986.
"We have people who have been on temporary status for 20 years," said Zoe Lofgren, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Immigration Sub-Committee.
She favors finding a way for the temporary immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens. "Their life is here now and better we should regularize that," she said.
But opponents of heavy immigration, many of them Republicans, want to limit the number of times a foreigner may renew a temporary visa.
On a better footing than the 11 million undocumented foreigners, the holders of temporary permits nevertheless struggle to hold down long-term jobs, face travel restrictions and live in fear of deportation.
Employers often balk at hiring an immigrant whose status - at least on paper - is temporary.
Victor Martell, a Salvadorean businessman in Chicago, says he lost the chance at a $120,000-a-year job because of his TPS visa, which he has held for 12 years.
Trained in SAP business software, Martell passed rigorous interviews at a well-known company and met with its management twice to explain an inventory management project he developed.
"I already had a start date and I went into HR to sign the documents and presented my TPS," he said. The next day, the company told him by email that he did not get the job, without an explanation. "It was very obvious to me that after they saw a TPS, they killed it."
Groups of lawmakers in both the Senate and House are struggling to agree on larger immigration issues including whether to legalize the status of illegal immigrants and how to secure the border with Mexico.
If they get past those hurdles, lawmakers will then have to look at other tough issues including a proposal to set up a national database for companies to check employees' immigration status and a planned guest workers' program.
While not a deal breaker, sorting out the temporary visa muddle could delay immigration reform.
"There are a huge bunch of issues. People shouldn't be surprised when a bill like this takes so long to happen. It is a big ticket idea that touches so many aspects of our society and our economy," said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer at the Migration Policy Institute think tank.
For proponents of stricter immigration controls, the temporary status exemplifies a system that is too lenient on immigrants who overstay their welcome.
"It's a manifestation of the political class' unwillingness to enforce immigration controls in a whole variety of areas but this is one that really stands out," said Mark Krikorian executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that argues for low levels of immigration.
THROWBACK TO 1990s
Set up in 1990 in response to the civil war in El Salvador, the TPS was later extended to other countries with conflicts or natural disasters such as Honduras, Somalia, Haiti and, beginning last year, Syria.
Salvadoreans lost temporary status after the conflict ended there in 1992. But they regained it following a fatal earthquake in 2001, and 209,000 Salvadoreans now make up by far the largest group of TPS visa holders.
Hondurans joined the program after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Those who have lived legally but temporarily in the United States for the longest are Liberians granted different types of deferrals and visas to allow them to stay in America and avoid the civil conflict that began in 1989.
Over time, temporary immigrants begin to chafe at the restrictions on their lives, like the need for travel permits to leave the country plus hefty lawyer's fees every 18 months.
Access to government-backed college loans is limited and mortgages are more expensive. "It's sort of a second-class citizenship," said Abel Nunez, an immigrants' rights advocate in Washington. "At first it's great but then it becomes a burden for people who want to integrate."
Going back home is not an easy option for temporary residents after building a life in the United States.
Most of them were already in the United States either illegally or on other permits like tourist visas when they won protected status.
Strictly speaking, they could be thrown out of the country if immigration reform brings an end to the TPS visa system, but a mass deportation is unlikely. In addition to upsetting Latino voters here, U.S. ally El Salvador could be destabilized by the return of 200,000 deportees.
NO GOING BACK
"The demographic pressure on employment, resources, social services and housing would be disastrous," said Juan Jose Garcia, El Salvador's minister for citizens who live abroad.
Few politicians are calling for a huge deportation but Republicans involved in the immigration debate want to restrict the number of temporary permits.
"In case of true humanitarian need, Temporary Protected Status is warranted. However, Temporary Protected Status should not be abused beyond its original congressional intent as the administration has done," said Ted Poe, a Texas Republican who is vice chairman of the House Immigration subcommittee.
The future of the temporary program will probably depend on whether the two parties can agree on bigger immigration issues. If so, TPS beneficiaries would likely get permanent residence "green cards" as part of a wider deal, said low immigration campaigner Krikorian.
"I'm reasonably confident that they would include holders of TPS in some provision that would allow them to convert to a green card," he said.
But if talks in Congress fall apart, the temporary status might remain untouched.
(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Todd Eastham)