ABCs of a Complex Immigration Policy

The author of this article, Edward J. Flynn, is legal director of CARECEN, the Central American Refugee Center

Thousands of Central American refugees in Southern California are wondering these days what their rights are under immigration laws. We have all heard the acronyms TPS, ABC and DED, but what do they really mean? The purpose of this article is to explain these immigration programs so that you and your neighbors can better understand the rights of Central Americans in the United States.

Many Salvadorans and Guatemalans who previously lacked documents for living in the United States today are continuing to benefit from the legislative and judicial victories of 1990 known as TPS and ABC, which provided applicants with work authorizations and a reasonable opportunity to obtain political asylum in the United States. However, only those who have already applied for the two programs are eligible for the benefits because the programs were closed to new applicants at the end of 1991.

TPS (Temporary Protected Status) and ABC (a program whose acronym came from American Baptist Churches) were the result of years of struggle by refugees and immigrants rights activists, who argued in the 1980s that the United States had an obligation under domestic and international law to provide refuge to Salvadorans and Guatemalans who had fled their countries because of civil wars and human rights abuses. The activists were alarmed that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service appeared more interested in deporting Central Americans than in granting political asylum to those who deserved it.

In response to this pressure, Congress passed a law in 1990 granting TPS to all Salvadorans who could prove they had been in the United States since before Sept. 19, 1990. This program provided Salvadorans who qualified with work authorization in six-month increments. By the end of the application period in October, 1991, nearly 180,000 Salvadorans had applied for TPS nationwide.

TPS for Salvadorans ended June 30, 1992, but work authorizations under TPS were extended to Oct. 31.


Salvadorans are now covered by the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) program, which was established by President Bush in response to pressure from activists nationwide and the continuing instability in El Salvador. The DED is open to Salvadorans in the TPS program.

Salvadorans with TPS can apply for DED anytime before next June 30; a fee of $60 is required for people who want work authorizations. It is highly recommended that all Salvadorans with TPS apply for DED as soon as possible, to take advantage of any benefits that might be offered.

Efforts are under way to extend DED for another year after June, 1993. If it is not extended, however, all Salvadorans with DED will have the opportunity to apply for political asylum under ABC, which also offers automatic work authorization. In other words, if Salvadorans with TPS plan ahead, they can have continuous work authorization in the United States for at least the next 18 months, and possibly much longer.

Despite continuing pressure from activists, the U.S. government has not yet granted TPS to Guatemalan refugees in the United States. However, Guatemalans and Salvadorans are benefiting from the ABC settlement reached in federal court in 1990.

The ABC settlement resulted from a suit filed against the INS in 1985 by numerous human rights groups and churches. They accused the INS of discriminating against Salvadorans and Guatemalans in their applications for political asylum. Nearly 70% of Nicaraguans and 80% of Soviets who applied for asylum got it during the 1980s, but fewer than 3% of Salvadoran and 2% of Guatemalan refugees were successful in their asylum claims.

The ABC agreement provided for all Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the United States, including those who had been rejected for asylum, to reapply under a new process designed to be fairer. All those who applied will receive automatic work authorization in one-year increments until their cases are decided.

For Guatemalans, the deadline to apply for ABC was Dec. 31, 1991. According to the INS, Guatemalan asylum applications submitted under ABC will not be considered until early 1994, giving the tens of thousands who applied for a minimum of two years of work authorization.

Guatemalan ABC applicants should consult with an attorney well before their asylum interviews to see if their written applications can be improved, because a poorly prepared form could lead to a person being denied asylum. It is also advantageous if applicants have a lawyer present to assist them at their interviews.

Salvadorans, meanwhile, will not enter the ABC process until the end of the TPS/DED period.

Central Americans who did not register for TPS or ABC may have other remedies, including applying for asylum, if they fear returning to their country. The requirements for asylum applications will be discussed in a future article.

People who would like more information on these or other immigration matters can call CARECEN at (213) 483-6868 or visit its offices at 668 S. Bonnie Brae in Los Angeles.