Earlier this year, the Trump administration began hinting at doing away with Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for immigrants from several countries around the world. Foreign nationals from countries that are pretty much inhabitable or unsafe due to natural disasters (such as Haiti) or civil strife (such as Sudan) have been told they should no longer consider the US a safe haven and that it is time to make plans to go back home. According to the USCIS website,
The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be up for debate what “returning safely” means. The current administration’s hardline approach to ending programs such as DACA and the Central American Minor’s (CAM) Program where a compassionate, humanitarian mindset is necessary, makes it come to no surprise that TPS is next in line. The 13 countries listed here currently have TPS destination. Two of them have been on the list for over a decade. El Salvador (16 years) and Honduras (17 years) have been deemed unsafe by previous administrations resulting in foreign nationals from both countries becoming long-time residents of the US.
Because of TPS, approximately 325,000 foreign nationals are able to reside in the US and are afforded limited but valuable perks such as work authorization and freedom from deportation. But this past summer Homeland Security began signaling it was going to focus its efforts on prompting TPS beneficiaries to begin to self-deport when over 50,000 Haitian TPS recipients were only given the opportunity to extend their status for an additional 6 months, instead of the 18 months they had hoped for. This created a wave of concern about the overall fate of TPS and whether it was going to follow a path similar to the CAM and DACA programs.
The overwhelming majority of TPS recipients are nationals of El Salvador (204,000) and Honduras (61,000). From my experience, the majority of local TPS recipients are from those two countries, as well. Foreign nationals from both countries have had to prove they have resided continuously in the US for over 15 years to renew their status and therefore often have deep roots in the communities they have resettled in.
For example, the other day I met with a Salvadoran woman who has had TPS since 2001. For almost two decades she has worked and lived in Ithaca and she is determined to stay. She has close ties within our community which include her place of employment, her children’s school, her church, and neighborhood. She, like many other TPS recipients, came seeking legal counsel because she keeps hearing on Spanish-language radio stations the program is doomed.
I also have Honduran clients who have been TPS recipients since the late 1990’s. In the past, they have been hopeful to one day get a green card but now they are are living in fear of not knowing what’s next. For over a decade, TPS has allowed them to get work permits and find jobs where they have benefits such as health insurance and sick pay. They are nervous and feel desperate about what the future holds for them. They fear they might lose their jobs and eventually have two choices: repatriate or risk remaining as undocumented immigrants where they are vulnerable to deportation and will have to work without authorization.
It’s time to transition some of the long-term TPS beneficiaries and provide them with a legal immigration status. Ideally, it’s time to pass a bill like the DREAM Act of 2017 which advocates for a legislative solution for both DACA and all TPS recipients. Immigrants and immigration advocates need to be vocal about including TPS in their advocacy. Add your voice by contacting Congress today; Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC) has already prepared this script that you can follow on their website. While I fully support Congress finding a solution for the Dreamers, we shouldn’t forget about the immigrants in our community with TPS.
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?