‘This Is Our Home': DC-Area Immigrants Worry Ahead of Temporary Protected Status Decision

When Nancy Vasquez first flew to the United States from El Salvador in 1999, after she and her husband got visas, she packed only one suitcase stuffed with precious photographs, a few dresses and two pairs of shoes. She couldn’t speak a word of English but she moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, with her husband, Fernando, because they were lucky enough to be granted visas. They planned to never return home.

Before Vasquez’s visa was set to expire in 2001, she discovered she could receive a form of humanitarian, provisional residency known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) because an earthquake devastated her home country that year. In the years that followed, Vasquez had a daughter named Rebecca, she divorced her husband and she traded the rented room she once shared with him for her own home in Damascus, Maryland.

Vasquez is one of an estimated 267,000 TPS holders in limbo after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told them their legal residency will end.

DHS announced Monday that it will end special protections for U.S. residents from El Salvador, forcing nearly 200,000 people to leave the country, find another way to achieve legal residency or face deportation.

The Washington, D.C. area has the largest number of TPS holders from El Salvador, at more than 32,000, according to an April 2017 report from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocacy group.

Vasquez said before the decision was announced that she has started to work on “plan B.” If her TPS status ended, Vasquez, 48, said she planned to move back to El Salvador and let her daughter live with the child's uncle and his husband in D.C. She said she dreaded this possibility.

“She needs me because she’s only 12 years old,” Vasquez said, her voice rising. “She needs more of her mom. Her uncle is her uncle. He’s not her mom. I’m her mom. Yo soy su mama.”

For people from other countries, the Trump administration said Nov. 20 that it would end TPS for about 46,000 people from Haiti on July 22, 2019, and for about 2,550 people from Nicaragua on Jan. 5, 2019. DHS is set to determine the fate of people in the U.S. from Honduras by July 5.

TPS holders received the status because the secretary of DHS determined conditions in their home country — like a continuous armed conflict, an environment disaster or an epidemic — barred them from returning or barred the country from receiving them. People with TPS status are protected from deportation, can work and can apply for travel authorization.

Now they’re worrying about what to do if they’re forced to leave.

Pennsylvania resident Karla Alvarado was 9 years old when she left San Salvador, El Salvador in 1997, with her aunt and 4-year-old brother. They went to meet her mother, who arrived in the U.S. a year earlier to escape Alvarado’s abusive father. Her mother sold everything she had to leave El Salvador, Alvarado said.

It took two weeks for Alvarado, her aunt and her brother to make their way from El Salvador to the U.S., traveling through Guatemala and Mexico. They entered the U.S. illegally and got TPS status in 2001. It came with “a sense of security,” Alvarado said.

“I knew before [that] we were ‘illegals,’” she said.

TPS gave her a “a sense to say ‘I’m here legally. I don’t have to worry about anything,’” she continued.

As an adult, Alvarado lives what she called her “American dream.” She went to nursing school, works as a nursing supervisor in home care and bought a house with her husband. Now 29, she helps supports her mother and younger siblings.

Before the decision was issued, she said the thought that her TPS status could end filled her with anxiety.

“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. I have my husband,” she said. “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.

Her husband is a citizen, so Alvarado is looking into whether his status would help her case for permanent residency. She’s worried her mother and brother could be deported.

“We’ve been here, my brother and I, since we were little,” 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 TPS for Nicaragua and Haiti came after a review of the current conditions of the two countries. Elaine Duke, then acting secretary for DHS, determined the conditions that led to those designations didn’t exist anymore, statements from the department say. People from Nicaragua got TPS status after Hurricane Mitch in 1999. In Haiti, the designation came after the major earthquake in 2010.

The Nicaraguan government made no request to extend its current designation, and Duke decided the conditions caused by Hurricane Mitch no longer existed, according to a statement issued Nov. 6. For Haiti, DHS said the country has shown "a commitment to adequately prepare for when the country’s TPS designation is terminated," according to a statement issued Nov. 20.

"Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens," the statement said.

Nicole Svajlenka — a senior policy analyst for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank — said she believes some TPS-designated countries, such as Haiti, likely are 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,” she said. “Through no fault of their own, people have lived here for a very long time. The U.S. really hasn’t made this temporary in any means.”

Svajlenka said ending U.S. residents’ TPS status would lead many people to become undocumented immigrants and create more mixed-status families.

Svajlenka co-wrote a report published in October on how TPS holders influence the U.S. economy and society. If TPS were to be eliminated, the report found, the U.S. citizen children of recipients would have two main options: being separated 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,” Svajlenka said.

Laura Muñoz Lopez, a special assistant for immigration policy and colleague of Svajlenka said violence and political unrest make it difficult for countries such as 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.”

The removal of TPS holders from the workforce would be “catastrophic, not only for the states but for the country as a whole,” Muñoz Lopez said.

According to a report from the 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. TPS holders from those three countries primarily work in construction, restaurants, landscaping, child care and supermarkets, the same report said.

TPS holders are fulfilling jobs that “would be otherwise untaken, unfilled,” said Zuzana Jerabek, a policy and advocacy associate at the National Immigration Forum, which supports bipartisan efforts for immigration reform.

“They are enhancing our economy. They are making our culture more diverse. They are bringing different ideas into our society,” she said. “That’s what we believe makes America great.”

Ending TPS status for thousands of U.S. residents would give them three possibilities, Jerabek said: they could leave the country, migrate to another country or “go into the shadows” in the U.S.

“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.

Immigration lawyer Corie O’Rourke said she has told TPS holders 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.” She works for Ayuda, a D.C. nonprofit that provides legal and social services to immigrants.

Many TPS holders don’t have other opportunities for protection, even though “their entire lives are here,” she said.

“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, the Salvadoran who has lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, said she’s worried about being forced to choose what to do. She said even an extension of her TPS status would not be 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.”

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