By Karlha Velasquez Rivas
*Published on the November print issue.
A bucket of cold water fell to Juan González when he saw in the news that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ended the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) that benefited 300,000 immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Syria, Honduras, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan.
The idea of knowing that he could be deported to his home country keeps him in alert. “It’s stressful, imagine that after 30 years of living in this country you’ll be told to go back,” Gonzalez said, a pseudonym to safeguard his identity.
Most of the holders of the TPS are Salvadorans of 240,000 beneficiaries. All of them have a social security number and work permit that allows them to get their driver’s license, open businesses and sense of stability. But the court’s decision made for this benefit to last until January 4, 2021.
If U.S. law makers don’t come up with the bipartisan resolution, Salvadorans and other beneficiaries would enter a limbo of illegality. According to the director of the Salvadoran Immigrant Institute, César Ríos, it is estimated that more than 15% of holders of that nationality with TPS would return to El Salvador if there is no alternative. Others, instead, consider going to Canada.
Faced with this situation last year the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, held talks with the government of Qatar to generate alliances and create temporary work visas for Salvadorans who wish to go to that country.
On the other hand, he made agreements with the US to limit the number of deportations, if it comes to be the case of not looking for another way out.
A 2017 study by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that terminaing TPS would negatively impact Social Security and Medicare revenues of 6.9 trillion, as well as the decline of Gross Domestic Product to $45.2 trillion and increase the cost of deportations over the next 10 years.
However, while it is true that the TPS was not created to give immediate residency to beneficiaries, it has been a respite for many. This benefit had to be renewed from time to time, paying a fee of $495 as required by the authorities. This period run between 6, 12 and 18 months.
Not only does Juan hang in the balance about what’s going to happen to his life after being in the country for 30 years and what he says is reasonable: “I came here younger and with more strength to work. What would I do in my country? From what I see, things are changing for the better, but I’ve still made life here. I bought my house and it’s paid for. You get traumatized by this whole situation.”
In 1990, reforms were created on the Immigration Act in which the U.S. Attorney’s Office could grant temporary protection status to immigrants whose countries of origin have entered into an armed conflict, environmental disaster or other conditions.
In 2003, Immigration Services held the baton, but as of 2017 who designates whether a country applies for temporary protection status is the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
El Salvador had entered TPS in 2001 because it suffered two deadly earthquakes. Honduras had entered due to the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Mitch that left more than 1.5 out of 6 million people homeless and destroyed entire villages.
African countries are due to the bellicose situation in their regions.
A 2018 DHS message explains that the reasons protection ended is because “the secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist.”
“Many reconstruction projects have been completed. Earthquake-damaged schools and hospitals have been rebuilt and repaired, houses have been rebuilt, and money has been provided for water and sanitation and to repair earthquake-damaged roads and other infrastructure. Substantial disorder of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exists,” the message adds.
In this case, Juan’s situation is different, as are that of many Salvadorans who were in the country opted for this situation.
The Patriot Immigrant
Juan was a farmer from Sonsonate, a city in the southwest of the country. There he met his wife and had his first child. He had suffered death threats from guerrilla groups and decided to leave for the US on the green roads. He didn’t have a visa.
With $2,000 lent to him by his sister-in-law who already lived in the state of California (USA), he decided to leave. He passed through Guatemala and then on the border with Mexico rejected him several times. At that time Mexico, he said, did not issue visas to Salvadorans.
After bribery some Mexican officers entered the country on their way to the U.S. border. Without hesitation, he crossed with some coyotes until he reached California. The plan was to bring the family. “It was a difficult time. The Mexicans came back to me several times, you couldn’t cross if you were Salvadoran. One had to pay the guards to leave you alone. And everyone charged something. I had to be meticulous with the money I had borrowed, that’s all I had,” Juan said.
Later his wife made the journey and then his brother with Juan teenage son.
In California, he sought a political asylum and they gave it to him. “Back then everything was easier to process. I was renovating my asylum as long as I was asked,” he said.
There, he worked in a cookie company with his wife, until there was a mass termination period and they found it difficult to find another job and run with the expenses of the city. A friend of Juan’s who was in Omaha suggested he come, so in 1994 he moved here.
He worked in a meat packing factory and then at the food company ConAgras where he lasted 18 years. “I withdrew because of the stress it caused me, I had no vacation or days off. The benefits and payment were good, but I had cancer from stress. Now I work in a construction company and I like it, but I don’t know how long I can be there because of the elimination of TPS,” he said.
Juan and his family were fine and more with the arrival of their daughter Jenny, whose name was also protected for this article.
Scams and TPS
In 2003, Juan received a letter from the Immigration Service saying that his asylum would not be renovated and that a deportation process would begin. The reason: the American authorizes “discovered” that Juan served on a compulsory military service for two years and fought against the country’s guerrillas during the civil war.
“I didn’t really understand that reason because when I applied for an asylum, I was never asked that. Yes, I served in the military because I was fighting for my country, and it was obligatory. Even the US government itself trained us, they were the ones who taught the army to defend themselves, now they put that as an excuse not to renew my asylum,” González said with nothing to hide.
So, he looked for a lawyer on Dodge Street and 86 who “promised” him that he would solve his problem and appeal his case. “More than four years have passed and the lawyer told me: look for your passport because you will be deported. He charged me $15,000, sneered at me, didn’t do anything. I decided to find another lawyer, his name is Brian Blackford, and he took my case and, thanks to him, I’m on the TPS program and without paying the other lawyer’s amount,” he said.
Uncertainty and controversy
By September 2020, the program had become a source of political controversy during President Trump’s administration, who look to end immigrant protections without signaling solutions such as permanent residency.
So far, all TPS holders have work permits in force until January 4, 2021. But until the close of this edition, nothing else has been reported.
The only way TPS holders can be adjusted for legal permanent residency is through a qualified majority vote in the Senate (involving 3/5 of all senators), given the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) for TPS.
Juan’s hope is his daughter Jenny, who will turn 21 next year and submit to the legal process of claiming direct relatives. “If you tell me I have to leave the country, then we’ll leave to carry out all the paperwork. I don’t have anything to do there in El Salvador anymore. Our only hope is my daughter. However, you must know that all this traumatizes you,” he said.
After the election, the expectations are that the buckets of cold water will disappear and that the authorities will give a fair path to these human beings that have contributed to the economy of this country.