U.S. officials have set a Thursday deadline for Honduran and Nicaraguan immigrants to apply for a one-year extension to a temporary worker program. Latin American community leaders say thousands of eligible people have yet to apply, because they were expecting Congress to approve a broad immigration reform package. Migrants are now rushing to sign up, as the proposed reforms appear stalled in Congress.

U.S. immigration officials created the temporary work program to help immigrants from nations suffering natural disasters or armed conflicts. Under the program, immigrants from nations given temporary protected status can receive immigrant status and work permits in the United States for up to several years. Honduras and Nicaragua were granted the status in 1999, after Hurricane Mitch devastated parts of Central America.

Over the past decade, temporary status has been given to other nations, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia and Sudan because of armed conflicts.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, says the so-called TPS program is an important part of U.S. immigration policy.

"I think it's within the finest traditions of our country, about granting asylum to people for whom it is not safe to return to your land of national origin," he said.

But seven years after Hurricane Mitch, U.S. officials say the disaster has passed and they are preparing to end TPS status for Honduras and Nicaragua next year. The deadline to apply for the program is Thursday. After that, immigrants seeking to remain in the United States will have to follow the same legalization procedures as other foreigners.

Officials announced the decision several months ago. But executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, Cheryl Little, says the message has been lost in recent media coverage.

"There has been so much news, on our radios and televisions, people talking about comprehensive immigration reform, that many immigrants in our community believe that a bill is about to pass which is going to give them the opportunity to earn legalized status over time," she said. "And as a result, many Hondurans and Nicaraguans don't believe there's a need to file for the extension of temporary protected status.

Little adds that some immigrants would rather not pay the $250 application fee, if it's unncessary.

To many Hondurans and Nicaraguans, however, it is now clear that a broad reform package will not be approved by Congress before the TPS deadline this week. And immigration experts warn those who fail to register for the extension may be subject to detention and deportation.

"Now, some immigrants are turning to groups that offer legal assistance before time runs out. Reina, a cashier in Miami, was among dozens of people at the Miami offices of community group Honduran Unity this week."

She says she was seeking help to complete her application for the TPS extension, to ensure there were no mistakes and that the forms would be filed properly.

The current TPS program is open to about 75,000 Hondurans and more than 4,000 Nicaraguans. Officials said last week less than half of those eligible had applied for the extension.

A separate TPS program is to close in September for more than 200,000 people from El Salvador, where an earthquake caused widespread destruction in 2001. In the coming months, it's unclear if Congress will resolve the immigration debate and agree to sweeping changes that could affect all foreign nationals. Until then, immigration experts advise Salvadorian nationals it's never too early to apply for an extension.