Unspoken promises and the threat to the American Dream
Editor’s note: CHN Intern Emily Rodriguez is a senior majoring in sociology at Brigham Young University.
As the child of immigrant parents, there are certain unspoken promises you make to them. You promise to do well in school, stay out of trouble, go to college, and get a good job. You promise to fight through the systemic barriers and racism to achieve the American Dream they so longed for. You promise to make their sacrifices worth it.
As a first-generation American, I am aware of the advantages I have been given just because I was born on this side of the border. Like every other American, I grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance, lighting fireworks on the 4th of July, playing baseball, and doing all other so-called American things. But I also experienced the limitations of the “American Dream“ and witnessed the sacrifices made by my family that allowed us to have just a sliver of it.
My mother is a Salvadorian immigrant who for 20 years was on Temporary Protective Status (TPS). She and her brothers fled El Salvador in the late 90s as the small country was recovering from a 12-year-long civil war. The war was brutal and destructive; an estimated 70,000 civilians died, and the country suffered $2 billion in damages. The effects of the war were so extreme that about one-quarter of El Salvador’s population fled, many finding themselves seeking shelter and a new life in the United States.
Thankfully, my mother became a U.S. citizen about a year ago. But many of my relatives and friends remain on TPS. And now they are at grave risk.
While TPS was granted to a few Salvadorians in 1990 directly after the war, the biggest cohort was after El Salvador was struck by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2001. This horrific natural disaster resulted in 1,100 deaths, 1.3 million displaced people, and caused $2.8 billion in damages. This recovering and fragile country that had just ended its civil war only a few years earlier was once again suffering. In response, the United States reinstated TPS for Salvadorians. In order to qualify you must have resided and remained in the United States since 2001, and more than 200,000 Salvadorians were granted Temporary Protective Status.
El Salvador being designated for TPS was a joyous thing. Salvadorians who were in the United States didn’t have to worry about deportations and were given work permits. No one knew how long this status would last. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security regularly reviews country conditions and then decides whether to renew TPS. When TPS was first granted in 1990 for Salvadorians, it only lasted until 1992. I’m sure many thought that it wouldn’t last very long. But two months before TPS was set to expire in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security renewed it for another 18 months. The same thing kept happening until it became a tradition.
I remember my mother anxiously watching Univision or Telemundo, two months before her status was set to expire. She would pray before turning on the TV and thank God when TPS was renewed for another 18 months. Now all she had to do was earn the $495 needed to renew her status. That $495 hurt financially and meant that money would be tight for a while, but it also meant that she would be able to legally stay and work in the country in which she was raising her daughters. So, she and 200,00 others got used to this lifestyle.
Twenty-one years have passed since TPS was first approved for Salvadorians. Although Salvadorians are the biggest and longest-remaining group, they are only one of 16 countries whose citizens currently have TPS. The most recent data states that there are 354,625 TPS holders, but that number is expected to increase as newly designated countries finish their enrollment period.
During their time here, TPS holders have made the United States their home. According to a recent study done by UCLA, 74 percent of TPS holders enrolled in English classes, 19 percent obtained a high school degree or GED and 2 percent got a bachelor’s degree. This study also reports that 88 percent of all TPS holders are in the labor force and one-third of TPS holders own their own homes. Another report states that 448,000 U.S. citizens live in a household where one of their family members has TPS with 279,000 of them being children. TPS holders are parents, homeowners, students, taxpayers, and workers, and many of them have `lived here for more than 20 years. Imagine how they felt when all of that was jeopardized.
The threat of the program ending was always on the horizon. For about 20 years people with TPS were aware that their ability to live the lives they had built was at risk every few months. However, nothing could have prepared them for the day that constant threat was finally realized.
In 2017, TPS holders from Sudan were notified that they had a little over a year before their TPS would expire and they would be required to return to their country of origin. El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Nepal would receive the same notification within the next few months.
Cristina Morales, a TPS holder from El Salvador, remembers learning about the termination through text. She told New York Times, after putting her children to bed she cried and thought to herself, “This is it. I’m going to lose everything, just like that.”
Deliverance, a Haitian mother and TPS holder fears being forced to go back to Haiti where she has nothing left. “This decision to end TPS has completely blocked my life,” Deliverance says. “I don’t know about my future in this country. I am very scared,” she said. (“Deliverance” is a pseudonym; her story was collected by the Americans Friends Service Committee and posted on their web site.)
Thousands of TPS recipients were placed and many remain even today in limbo. After the termination, lawsuits were filed by TPS holders and their U.S. citizen children. The fight for TPS recipients and their families has been long and tiring. The case, Ramos v. Mayorkas, had initially been decided in favor of the TPS holders in 2018 by a federal district court judge. But in 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the original ruling. Thankfully, the ruling is not yet final as the plaintiffs requested a rehearing before the Ninth Circuit.
In 2021, the plaintiffs and the Biden Administration began discussing potential negotiations and settlement talks. Unfortunately, those talks ceased last week. With the settlement talks now over, the Ninth Circuit must decide whether to grant the plaintiff’s request for a rehearing. All of this carries on as the technical expiration date for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Nepal, and Honduras remains set for December 31, 2022.
The stakes are high for the roughly 337,000 Salvadorian, Nicaraguans, Nepalese, and Hondurans who don’t know what their legal status will be in 2023. And for the 273,000 U.S. children whose parents may be taken away.
TPS was the only thing that allowed my family to survive. It allowed my mom to work and provide for me when I was younger. It allowed her to get a driver’s license and have proper documentation. It gave my family comfort knowing we didn’t need to worry about my mother being deported.
In the beginning I mentioned some of the promises children of immigrants make to their families and community. In my case, I promised to be loud and to fight for them.
When President Biden first took office, he also made promises. He reassured families that he would “protect TPS and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) holders from being returned to countries that are unsafe” and that TPS holders who have spent years building their lives in the United States would “be offered a path to citizenship through legislative immigration reform.”
It has been almost two years and we are nowhere closer today then we were then. President Biden, we remember the promises you made and are calling on you to act on them.
Doris Landaverde from the National TPS Alliance and TPS holder states, “The Biden Administration has the legal authority and moral obligation to expand TPS to all who need it. Re-designating TPS for Central American countries should be the bare minimum for a government that owes a historical debt to a region ravaged by U.S. intervention and to our community whose labor has been used to sustain the US economy, even in the midst of a global pandemic.”
The lives and families of over 300,000 people are at risk. Their home is here, and they need help protecting it.