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Lawmakers call for protected status for Ecuadorians living in U.S.

As Ecuador grapples with a lengthy recovery following an earthquake earlier this month, some American politicians and immigration advocacy groups are requesting the Department of Homeland Security use a little-known law to extend the stay of Ecuadorians living in the United States.

Lawmakers including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the Obama administration this week to designate Temporary Protected Status for Ecuadorians in the U.S.

TPS is a program enacted as part of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1990 which allows the government to extend the stay of foreigners whose countries are affected by war, natural disaster or another urgent need — like the threat of Ebola.

More than 650 Ecuadorians were killed and 16,000 were injured after 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck on April 16, toppling buildings and leaving widespread destruction in cities and towns along the northern coast of the South American country. Several dozen people are still missing amid the ruins.

People are seen at a makeshift camp after thousands of people were made homeless following the earthquakes in Pedernales, Ecuador on April 26, 2016. UN, Red Cross and aid organizations from many different nations began distributing aid accompanied by police on the northern shores of Ecuador, which were the worst hit by the earthquake. The inhabitants of Pedernales, where 168 people lost their lives and 2,455 were made homeless, struggle with life in UN camps or makeshift huts they have erected themselves. Enes Duran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

People are seen at a makeshift camp after thousands of people were made homeless following the earthquakes in Pedernales, Ecuador on April 26, 2016. Photo by Enes Duran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-ill.) and de Blasio both sent letters and made public statement this week backing the designation, with these politicians representing some of the more significant Ecuadorian populations in the country.

New York City alone is home to nearly 140,000 Ecuadorian immigrants,” de Blasio said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Many of these New Yorkers face additional uncertainty about whether it is safe for them to return to Ecuador at this time. We must extend whatever support we can at this critical moment.”

The call comes amid a contentious presidential election season that has once again brought the long-standing issue of immigration to the forefront.

People are pictured at a temporary camp on a hill close to Jama on April 19 after an earthquake struck off Ecuador's Pacific coast. Photo by Guillermo Granja/Reuters

People are pictured at a temporary camp on a hill close to Jama on April 19 after an earthquake struck off Ecuador’s Pacific coast. Photo by Guillermo Granja/Reuters

Approximately 340,000 people from eight countries were in the U.S. under the TPS program as of 2014. Those with TPS status are protected from being deported and are permitted to work on a temporary basis, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), which tracks the movements of migrants across the globe.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, TPS status is granted for a period of six to 18 months, but has in some cases been extended for decades. People from 13 countries have been granted TPS status.

More than 200,000 El Salvadorans, an estimated 64,000 Hondurans and some 58,000 Haitians have been allowed to stay in the country under TPS, according to the MPI.

Policemen and soldiers stand guard in the Tarqui area of Manta, Ecuador on April 23, 2016.  New aftershocks rattled Ecuador on Friday and hopes of finding survivors in the rubble all but evaporated, nearly a week after a huge earthquake that killed more than 600 people and injured thousands. Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

Policemen and soldiers stand guard in the Tarqui area of Manta, Ecuador on April 23, 2016. Photo by Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

Critics of the program point to the TPS’ ability to grant protections to those who overstayed their visas or entered the U.S. illegally.

One such critic, Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a reduction in the number of immigrants allowed into the United States, called the law the “earthquake lottery for illegal aliens.”

“There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary refugee,” he wrote on the organization’s website this week.

Roughly 143,000 Ecuadorians reside in the U.S. illegally, many of them centered in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California and Florida, according to an MPI map that estimates the number of Ecuadorians living in the U.S. between 2009 and 2013,

People are seen at a camp by the United Nations (UN) after thousands of people were made homeless following the earthquakes in Pedernales, Ecuador on April 26, 2016. UN, Red Cross and aid organizations from many different nations began distributing aid accompanied by police on the northern shores of Ecuador, which were the worst hit by the earthquake. The inhabitants of Pedernales, where 168 people lost their lives and 2,455 were made homeless, struggle with life in UN camps or makeshift huts they have erected themselves. Enes Duran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

People are seen at a camp by the United Nations (UN) after thousands of people were made homeless following the earthquakes in Pedernales, Ecuador on April 26, 2016. Photo by Enes Duran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But Muzaffar Chishti, an attorney and director of MPI’s office at the NYU School of Law, said based on precedence Ecuadorians likely qualify for the status, barring a spillover from the current presidential race.

“It appears to me to be the appropriate situation,” he said, in an interview with the PBS NewsHour. “If we saw resistance or an unfortunate failure of the (Obama) administration it would demonstrate the chilling effect this election has had on immigration.”

Gutierrez, who wrote a letter to the president on Monday requesting TPS status for the Ecuadorians and citing the “magnitude of destruction” in their home country, said the law allows Mr. Obama to make the designation without Congressional approval.

“The United States Congress created TPS for exactly these types of dire circumstances in foreign countries, when those citizens cannot safely return to their country and are already living in the U.S.,” he wrote. “Ecuadorians cannot safely return home.”

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