Immigrants Fight for Temporary Protected Status in Congress
From the Spring 2018 issue of El Salvador Watch.
In February, hundreds of immigrants from across the country gathered on Capitol Hill for three days of trainings, lobbying, and actions to push Congress to take action on Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Since its founding last year, the National TPS Alliance has brought together immigrants whose lives are now in jeopardy following Trump’s attacks on a program that protects over 430,000 U.S. residents from deportation to countries where conditions are unsafe.
Congress created TPS in 1990, giving the U.S. government the ability to grant work permits to immigrants in the case of natural disaster, civil war or other emergencies in their home country. Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador were granted TPS between 1999-2001 in the wake of hurricanes and earthquakes. Haiti was granted TPS in 2010 after the devastating earthquake from which the country has yet to recover.
Trump cancelled TPS for Haiti and Nicaragua in November 2017 and then went after El Salvador, the country with the largest number of TPS holders, over 260,000. Despite months of pressure from Members of Congress, labor unions, religious leaders and even the Chamber of Commerce, who all called on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to renew the designation, in January DHS granted Salvadorans one final extension until September 2019. After that, they will be “removed” from the country and sent to El Salvador, where some have not been since they were children or teenagers. When it became clear that the Trump Administration was gunning for TPS, immigrant rights organizations moved quickly develop a strategy. Several organizations with Central American leadership, especially the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in Los Angeles, also made it a priority to organize TPS holders and put them in the driver’s seat.
While many TPS holders have been active in the immigrant rights struggle, others have not. For decades, they dutifully renewed their paperwork, passed criminal background checks, and paid high fees. They had no reason to expect that the U.S. would do an about-face, especially since TPS was renewed continuously throughout both the Bush and Obama years. So they went about rebuilding their lives. Over a third are homeowners. Collectively, they are parents to over 270,000 U.S. citizens. They had a degree of safety compared to millions of undocumented people - until now.
Organizations like NDLON and CARECEN swung into action, helping to form TPS committees across the country and bringing them together into a national alliance. Many of the groups started locally, pressing city councils to pass resolutions in support of TPS. In Massachusetts, they successfully pushed their Republican governor to put pressure on Trump from within the Republican Party. From State House rallies to sharing their stories publicly in the media, they quickly raised the visibility of TPS, making it an immigration priority second only to DACA for the Democrats.
The ultimate goal of the National TPS Alliance is to create a pathway to legal permanent residency, which means getting legislation passed in Congress. In recent months, multiple bills have been put forward, some from Democrats and some from Republicans. The strongest is the American Promise Act, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), with 92 Democratic co-sponsors. On the Senate side, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced a parallel bill, the SECURE Act, with 18 co-sponsors, also all Democrats. Both would allow immigrants with TPS who have lived in the U.S. for over five years to apply for Legal Permanent Residency.
But despite the positive momentum, the challenge is to win Republican support. So on February 4-6, TPS holders once again got on airplanes and buses or carpooled through the night on their way to Washington, DC to demand action before it’s too late; TPS for Haiti ends first, on July 22. Delegations from so-called red states like North Carolina, Nebraska, and Texas went face-to-face with their elected officials, telling their stories again and again, trying to make a human connection: If I am deported, what will happen to me? What will happen to my children if I bring them? If I leave them behind? What will happen to my home, my business, my employees?
In the background, there is the question of their home countries. How will El Salvador, a country that has finally, after a almost decade of progressive governance, started to build a social safety net and add jobs to a hemorrhaging economy, support 260,000 more people? What will Haiti, a country where cholera rages and over 50,000 are still living in post-earthquake camps, do to keep 60,000 people safe? As organizers build support for legislative solution, the battle is also headed to the courts, with various lawsuits from the NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the ACLU and others. Some charge the Trump Administration with racial discrimination. Others argue that TPS holders are being unlawfully denied the opportunity to adjust their status even if they should otherwise be able to do so, for example, if they are married to a U.S. citizen. U.S.-born children are also organizing a class action suit charging the U.S. with failing to uphold its duty to protect them.
CISPES is proud to be part of the National TPS Alliance, with chapters holding educational events, fundraisers, and rallies, doing lobbying trainings and organizing legislative visits. The challenge is daunting and the stakes are high. But the courage, tenacity and vision of the immigrant rights movement, especially its undocumented and youth leaders, continue to inspire faith in collective action for justice and human dignity.