By Ambar Pardilla
When Nancy Vasquez first flew to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1999, after she was approved for a visa along with her husband, she packed only one suitcase — stuffed with precious photographs in an album, a few dresses and two pairs of shoes. She couldn’t speak a word of English but felt that she had to follow her husband, Fernando, who said that he wouldn’t return to El Salvador after their arrival.
By the time that Vasquez’s visa expired in 2001, she discovered that she could apply for another chance to continue her life in the U.S. and was granted Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, because of an earthquake in El Salvador that same year. In the years that followed, Vasquez had a daughter named Rebecca, divorced her husband and traded the rented room she once shared with her husband for her own home in Maryland.
But now Vasquez wonders what will happen to her status as the Department of Homeland Security began announcing expiration and extension dates for countries currently designated for TPS. Nicaraguans’ TPS terminates on Jan. 5, 2019, Haitians’ on July 22, 2019, and Honduras was given a six-month extension until DHS makes a decision.
A country can be designated for TPS by the secretary of DHS if conditions in a country — like a continuous armed conflict, an environment disaster or epidemic — keep its citizens from returning or the country from receiving them. Those who are granted TPS are protected from deportation, can work and apply for travel authorization.
Vasquez said has started to prepare for the possibility of the end of her TPS in what she calls her “Plan B” — letting her daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, live with her uncle and his husband in Washington, D.C. as she leaves for El Salvador.
“I can continue my life in my country but I can’t see more of my daughter,” Vasquez said. “She needs me because she’s only 12 years old. She needs more of her mom. Her uncle is her uncle. He’s not her mom. I’m her mom. Yo soy su mama. She needs me because the age she has is the age that she needs me more because she needs my consejo [Spanish for “advice”].”
With the announcements on Nicaragua, Haiti and Honduras and a decision about El Salvador’s designation expected in January, many of the more than 300,000 TPS holders wait for news about their fates while worrying about what they will do if their status disappears — especially since some have spent decades in the U.S.
Karla Alvarado said she was 9 years old when she left San Salvador, El Salvador with her aunt and 4-year-old brother to meet her mother, who arrived in the U.S. in 1996 after escaping from Alvarado’s abusive father. Her mother sold everything she had — including a car, fridge and furniture — to leave El Salvador, Alvarado said.
Alvarado, her aunt and brother traveled to the U.S. almost a year later — taking two weeks to travel across Guatemala, Mexico and crossing the border into the U.S., she said.
When El Salvador was designated for TPS, Alvarado said she went to Washington, D.C., with her mother to apply and has had her status since 2001, giving her “a sense of security.”
Since settling in the U.S., Alvarado has started what she calls her “American dream” — working as a nursing supervisor in home care after attending nursing school, purchasing a house with her husband and supporting her mother and younger siblings who are 25, 15 and 10.
But the thought of having her TPS terminated has filled her with anxiety especially about what will happen to the life she has created in the U.S., Alvarado said.
“The uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen makes me very anxious. I have a mortgage. I have a car payment. I have my bills to pay,” Alvarado said. “I have my husband. But at the same time, I’m head of household. I have to help my mother and my siblings.”
“You’re taking that away from me and I don’t understand why,” Alvarado added.
Since her husband has citizenship, Alvarado said they have begun to look into petitioning for her to have permanent residency through their marriage. Still, Alvarado has fears about her brother and mother being deported.
“We’ve been here, my brother and I since we were little. We don’t really know anything,” Alvarado said. “We don’t really know what it’s like to live in El Salvador anymore. This is our home.”
The decision to end the TPS designation for Nicaragua and Haiti came after a review of the current conditions of the two countries and Elaine Duke, then acting secretary for DHS, determined that the conditions that caused the designations didn’t exist anymore, according to press releases from DHS. Nicaragua was designated for TPS because of Hurricane Mitch in 1999 and Haiti in 2010 after an earthquake.
But Nicole Prchal Svajlenka — a senior policy analyst for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank — believes that some of the TPS-designated countries like Haiti are probably not “that well-equipped to receive such a large number of people at once, back from the United States.”
“The infrastructure that takes decades to rebuild after something that would cause countries to be designated complicates this. Through no fault of their own, people have lived here for a very long time,” Prchal Svajlenka said. “The U.S. really hasn’t made this temporary in any means.”
Prchal Svajlenka said that taking away TPS would make those who were recipients become undocumented immigrants and create more mixed-status families.
Prchal Svajlenka co-wrote a report for the center on how TPS holders influence U.S. economy and society. The report said that if TPS were to be eliminated, the U.S. citizen children of recipients have two prospects: separation from their families or moving to a country they don’t know.
“Those families are faced with a choice that is just absolutely heartbreaking to imagine. Do you stay in the U.S. without authorization or do you return to a country that received this designation for important reasons? In many cases, things that they haven’t recovered from yet,” Prchal Svajlenka said.
Laura Muñoz Lopez, a special assistant for immigration policy at the center, also wrote the report with Prchal Svajlenka. Muñoz Lopez too thinks that violence and political unrest make it difficult for countries like El Salvador and Honduras to take in “people who have made lives in the United States.”
“It’s called temporary protected status for a reason. But at the same time, that is under the assumption that the country that has TPS is working on a way to getting out of the chaos or civil unrest that it’s in,” Muñoz Lopez said. “It’s not like we want Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti to never get better. We would love for those countries to be in a place where they can be welcoming back to the people that call that country home. But unfortunately, that isn’t the case.”
Muñoz Lopez also said the removal of TPS holders from the workforce would be “catastrophic, not only for the states but for the country as a whole.”
According to a report from Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti — the three countries with the largest TPS populations — have a labor force participation rate that ranges from 81 to 88 percent, which is above the 63 percent rate for the total U.S. population. The leading industries in which TPS holders from those three countries primarily work within are construction, restaurants, landscaping, child care services and supermarkets, the same report said.
For Zuzana Jerabek, a policy and advocacy associate at the National Immigration Forum, which supports bipartisan efforts for immigration reform, TPS holders are fulfilling jobs that “would be otherwise untaken, unfilled.”
“They are enhancing our economy. They are making our culture more diverse. They are bringing different ideas into our society,” Jerabek said. “That’s what we believe makes America great. We think that’s the American dream.”
Although there are no studies that could predict precisely what would happen if TPS were to be terminated, Jerabek said, three possibilities exist: that recipients will leave the country, migrate to another country or “go to the shadows.”
“Instead of doing what the administration is saying it wants to do, it wants to get rid of unauthorized populations, they would create more of these undocumented people,” Jerabek said.
“Those people are in most cases here because the situation in their country is so bad that they have to stay here or in the case of unauthorized immigrants, they chose the hard way,” Jerabek added. “They didn’t come to the United States and say ‘Okay, let’s steal these jobs.’ They went through terrible danger to get here and they’ve been living with their families in the shadows for their entire lives.”
“In many cases, people are not here because they would choose to but because they were forced to. Many of them will tell you, ‘If I could choose, I would go back to my country, to my culture, to my language.’ Sometimes we think that our country, it’s like safe haven for everybody but imagine that you would go for a vacation or studying abroad to Germany and something happened over here and you couldn’t go back,” said Zuzana Jerabek. (Photo by Ambar Pardilla)
Corie O’Rourke, an immigration attorney with AYUDA, a nonprofit that provides legal and social services to immigrants, wasn’t surprised with the announcements on TPS, which she said follows the administration’s actions on immigration. O’Rourke said she has told the TPS holders who are her clients to start searching for other immigration options so “they can get something in place before their TPS ends or not have too long of a gap after their TPS ends.”
But O’Rourke said that some TPS holders don’t have other opportunities for protection if TPS were to end for them, even though “their entire lives here.”
“They’re having to face, ‘Do I leave all that and go back to a country that I left for a reason?’ These countries are not places that a lot of people want to go back to,” O’Rourke said. “Or ‘Do I stay here and have to go under the radar and hide from the government?’ I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to face that decision.”
Vasquez too thinks about how TPS holders will handle going back to their home countries after creating their own lives in the U.S.
“I don’t understand why after 17 years, they say that TPS is only temporary,” Vasquez said.
For Vasquez, extensions for TPS holders aren’t enough — she wants a path to legal permanent residence.
“I’m American because I’m from El Salvador and El Salvador is Central America,” Vasquez said. “I consider this country to be my country. This is my land because I’m American also. That’s it.”