In 1999, when Hurricane Mitch resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and caused more than a billion dollars in damages in Nicaragua, the U.S. government granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to several thousand of the 868,000 living survivors of the disaster. Nearly two decades later, approximately 2,550 TPS beneficiaries have made the U.S. their home, setting up businesses, buying homes and expanding their families.
But that is all scheduled to end on Jan. 5, 2019, the termination date Acting Secretary Elaine Duke has set for the legal status of Nicaraguan TPS beneficiaries. Duke said the Nicaraguan government declined to request an extension and a review by interagency consultants found that the temporary conditions that initially caused these migrants to flee no longer exist.
However, Duke was quick to acknowledge that although these migrants may not qualify for TPS status, they should be considered for permanent immigration status due to the length of time they have spent integrating into American culture. On Nov. 6, she called on Congress to “enact a permanent solution for this inherently temporary program,” saying she recognizes the “difficulty facing citizens of Nicaragua — and potentially other countries — who have received TPS designation for close to two decades.”
Many immigration advocates agree and are petitioning Congress to act quickly.
Congress first introduced TPS in 1990, to provide a temporary safe haven for foreigners facing disaster in their home countries, while specifically excluding them from permanent resettlement in the U.S. unless they are able to adjust their immigration status through other means. Most of the initial TPS holders in the early 90s stayed in the U.S. for about three years before returning to their country of origin (including Kuwait, Rwanda and Lebonon), but toward the end of the decade, more countries found it impossible to accept back their misplaced citizens, leaving them in legal limbo — waiting 18 months to see if the U.S. government would renew their TPS designation. Nicaragua was one of these countries.
Jill H. Wilson, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service, estimates that more than 300,000 migrants are TPS beneficiaries. While more than 60 percent have lived in the U.S. for close to 20 years, their status may expire as early as next year.
Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the committee on Migration and Refugee Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said there are currently four bills in Congress — three in the House and one in the Senate, and of the House bills, two have bipartisan sponsorship — signaling that there is interest in creating a solution for long-term TPS recipients.
One bipartisan bill, dubbed the ASPIRE Act, would allow TPS beneficiaries to apply for permanent residency after providing proof that returning home would result in extreme hardship. The other bipartisan bill, sponsored by Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo — Extending Status Protection for Eligible Refugees with Established Residency Act — would provide a pathway to permanent residency for Haitians, Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Salvadorans living in the U.S. since Jan. 13, 2011.
“There are a lot of factors at play here, and I think as more people learn and understand the contributions of TPS holders in their individual communities, you will see more attention being brought to this issue and certainly more dialogue in Congress on this,” Feasley told Angelus News.
Immigration advocates are scrambling to help Haitians, who were recently denied a TPS extension after being granted status in 2010. Their possible deportation date is set for July 22, 2019, unless they can find a way to adjust their immigration status. The returning Haitians (totaling 46,000) are going back to a country struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Matthew hit last year. According to a USCCB report in 2016, approximately 55,000 people (more than the number of returning refugees) are living in camps or squatting on land they hope to claim.
The future of the U.S.-born children of Haitian TPS recipients is a key concern in the debate. An estimated 27,000 U.S.-citizen children have been born to Haitian TPS beneficiaries since 2010, said Feasley. “The Church cares so much about this, because we see this as a family and a family separation issue.”
Immigration advocates worry about the future of these Haitian-American children (and others in similar circumstances), who may remain in the U.S. without their parents in order to pursue a better education, noted Feasley, adding “That’s not an outcome that Catholics, valuing the sanctity of the family, want to see.”
The U.S. bishops had hoped the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would extend Haitian status while the U.S. Embassy in Haiti found a way to accommodate a potential influx of U.S. citizen children. The bishops also argued that those individuals, who have maintained lawful U.S. status for the past five years, should receive permanent immigration status. Haiti, the bishops argue, is far from ready to address the protection and integration needs of potential returnees.
Another chief concern is the future of an estimated 195,000 TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador, who face a fast approaching deadline on March 9 after holding TPS benefits since 2001. Although some argue that the extreme poverty and the prevalent gang violence in the Central American country will protect migrants from deportation, others worry that the Trump administration will take a less magnanimous approach than the previous administration.
“There are conditions on the ground, particularly when we are talking about the Central American countries and Haiti, to merit extension of temporary protected status,” said Feasley. But, she argues, “There is certainly a need to find a solution that recognizes their contributions and their willingness to achieve the American dream and integrate into our community.”
Dalia Diaz, 29, told Angelus News that she can’t imagine returning to El Salvador, a country she left when she was just 4. She is working with an attorney to try to obtain a green card after more than two decades of living in the U.S. under TPS. She said the prospect of having to leave the U.S. makes her heart drop.
“I would just feel devastated, because my whole life is here,” said Diaz. “I wasn’t culturally raised [like a person from El Salvador]. My mannerisms are different. I even joke with my dad that if I get sent over there, they won’t want me because I [would be considered] old. … It’s just a whole different lifestyle.”
Isaac Cuevas, associate director of Immigration Affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said that Congress needs to hear from their constituents that TPS beneficiaries matter. “Contacting their representative is the most important thing that people can do,” he said.
Cuevas said that citizens and noncitizens alike need to pick up the phone.
“Even if people are [only] here as permanent residents, they … can [still] pick up the phone and call, and really voice their concern for the fact that immigration reform has to be a priority.”