Immigration-renewal numbers lag in U.S.

SANTA ANA, Calif. More than 300,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua had to renew their temporary protected status - which was granted by the U.S. government to help the countries overcome natural disasters.

As of Friday, only 54 percent had filed papers to do so, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Many immigrants went to consulates to get help in filling out the paperwork the day of the deadline. But consular officials questioned whether last-minute applicants would make up the difference in what have so far been low renewal numbers.

Honduran and Salvadoran officials say many immigrants put off extending their permission to remain in the country because they couldn't afford $420 in processing fees after losing their jobs and having their work hours cut in the recession.

At the Salvadoran Consulate in Santa Ana, Salvador Morales, 41, said he waited until the last minute because he needed to save nearly $2,000 to cover the cost of renewing paperwork and obtaining work permits for himself, his wife, and their three children.

"In past years we would have been among the first ones here," said Morales, who has seen revenue from his trucking business cut in half during the last three months. "This year, we feel like going to El Salvador. The government isn't going to kick us out, but the economy will."

Immigrants must pay $80 to renew their status and another $340 for a work authorization card, which many say they can't afford.

Consular officials had been urging immigrants to renew their legal status now and worry about the work permit later - especially since their current work authorization cards are valid through the middle of 2009.

Berta Alicia Gonzalez, 46, said she filled out the forms two weeks ago but didn't have money for the fees after losing her job in May. The Salvadoran citizen plans to ask the federal government for a fee waiver. Such waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. government has the ability to grant temporary protected status to citizens of countries ravaged by natural disasters to allow them to stay and work here legally while their countries recover. The U.S. granted the status to Salvadorans when a pair of earthquakes ravaged the country in 2001 and to Hondurans and Nicaraguans in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1999.

Anna Bessie de Recinos, consul of El Salvador in Santa Ana, said she could only hope that Christmas mail slowed the receipt of applications and that more were on their way to the U.S. government.

David Hernandez, minister at the Honduran Embassy in Washington, D.C., said his government urged Hondurans to call their relatives in the U.S. and tell them to renew their paperwork to avoid becoming illegal immigrants.

"The crowds have been small (at Honduran consular offices)," Hernandez said. "Economic problems have been one of the biggest causes."



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