The other day I met with Elsa (not her real name) who has had a lawful status in the US since the late 90’s thanks to Temporary Protective Status (TPS). The US enacted the TPS program through the Immigration Act of 1990 as a way to aid countries that were being faced by difficult but temporary conditions such as war, epidemics, or natural disasters. This program created a process for foreign nationals to stay in the US if there were conditions in their homelands that prevented their safe return. It also provided a way for foreign nationals, such as Elsa, to have the opportunity to live and work in the US without the fear of deportation, but only temporarily.
For 15 years now, Elsa has been doing what it takes to stay in good status as a TPS beneficiary. She undergoes criminal background checks, files tax returns, has to demonstrate she has good moral character, and she saves the fees (approximately $500) every times she needs to have her application prepared and filed. For the past few years Elsa has been coming to Catholic Charities for assistance with re-registering her TPS since it is valid for only 18 months. Ithacan immigrants registered for TPS tend to be from Central American countries that have TPS designation: El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The current list also includes Haiti, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Syria. As of yesterday, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone were also added due to the Ebola virus outbreak.
While this temporary status safeguards Elsa from deportation or detention and allows her to legally work in the US, it also places her life in a legal limbo since she never knows when her status could be terminated. For 15 years she has had to live with the ambiguity that if her country is deemed safe to return to, her lawful presence in the US could come to an end. Every time I see Elsa, she asks me the same question – “Why can’t I get a green card?” After spending 15 years in good status, albeit temporary, I think this is a valid question.
As depicted in the chart above, there are well over 300,000 TPS beneficiaries in the US. The majority are living in urban areas but there are others who have chosen rural areas, such as Ithaca, to make their temporary home. Similar to Elsa, they often have strong ties to their community and feel like they are in their permanent home. The ones I have met locally are for the most part living humble lives as they work in relatively low wage jobs often as cleaners or housekeepers, as farmhands in rural parts of the county, or as cooks or dishwashers in Collegetown or downtown Ithaca.
Compared to the several million of undocumented immigrants who are waiting for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) or an executive action by President Obama to see if they can get relief from the fear of deportation and the opportunity to work with authorization, Elsa’s status is almost enviable. For 15 years she has been shielded from deportation or detention and has been able to participate in the formal economy. She was also able to get a driver’s license. But the caveat is this is only temporary. Therefore, as fortunate as her position may seem to some, the fact is unless there is some legislative change through Congress, Elsa won’t be eligible to get a green card anytime soon and will have to live in a legal limbo.
Even though their status says “temporary,” the roots TPS beneficiaries are putting down in the US run deep but unfortunately may not be safeguarded or permanent. For many of them, repatriation to their former country isn’t a viable option, so they would be forced to go back to being undocumented and living in the shadows if their country’s designation is terminated. They would have to leave the formal economy and move to the underground economy. This is unsettling and that is why when someone like Elsa, who has paid her dues and is a contributing, law abiding member of our community, repeatedly asks “Why can’t I get a green card?” I, too, have to wonder, why not?