What Happens to the Temporary: the Latest Punch to Immigrant Bodies

Photo credit: Claudia Rojas  [Image description: The intersection of a street sign. One sign says "Freedom" and one says "Knollwood." Trees slightly cover a house in the background.]

Photo credit: Claudia Rojas

[Image description: The intersection of a street sign. One sign says "Freedom" and one says "Knollwood." Trees slightly cover a house in the background.]

In the past year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has ended a specific humanitarian protection known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nationals of six countries. The TPS program allows immigrants from designated countries a work permit to legally work in the U.S. This program has been contingent on the conditions in an immigrant’s native country, which is why the work permit is valid for 18 months.

The most recent termination of the program was announced on Friday for Honduran TPS immigrants. The news comes after Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke was unable to make a decision regarding a full extension or termination; the indecision of last year resulted in an automatic six-month extension. During the short-term extension given to Honduras, TPS was ended for other countries. This month, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen revisited Honduras's designation, choosing to end it by 2020.

What does "temporary" actually mean?

The issue with TPS is its temporary nature. The protections are not supposed to last. The protections are a U.S. response to natural disasters: hurricanes in the case of Honduras and Nicaragua, or earthquakes in the case of El Salvador, Haiti, and Nepal. In the case of Sudan and other TPS countries, armed conflict.

For Honduras and Nicaragua, the temporary turned into 20 years. For El Salvador, the temporary turned into 17 years. During those years, DHS did not believe conditions safe enough for these immigrants to return. More natural to these countries than natural disaster is corruption, gang violence, and murder. In 2016, El Salvador held the highest homicide rate in the world.

During this time Central American immigrants with TPS and those from Haiti, Nepal, and Sudan built lives. These lives look like U.S. children, marriages, mortgages, college degrees, and careers. TPS holders from El Salvador alone would leave behind nearly 200,000 U.S. citizen children should they be deported.

What can TPS immigrants do?

The immigration system has failed to provide a pathway to a permanent status, and this affects 300,000 lives under TPS. Very few TPS immigrants can adjust their legal status. Length of stay does not matter because TPS is not recognized as an entry into a permanent status

 Due to natural disaster and armed conflict, immigrants with TPS fled their countries without filing immigration paperwork until arriving to the U.S., where they file an I-821, an "Application for Temporary Protected Status," and pay a fee with each application and renewal and, as contributing members of the U.S. economy, pay income taxes. The extended temporary nature of TPS means these immigrants do not have a permanent legal status, despite their economic contributions over one to two decades.

The lack of permanent protection leaves most immigrants with TPS two options: return to their native country or join the 11 undocumented U.S. immigrants.

How long until the terminations take effect?

1. Sudan’s TPS ends NOV. 2018. That’s in six months.
2. Nicaragua’s TPS ends JAN. 2019. That’s in nine months.
3. Nepal’s TPS ends JUN. 2019. That’s in 13 months. 
4. Haiti’s TPS ends JUL. 2019. That’s in about 14 months.
5. El Salvador’s TPS ends SEP. 2019. That’s in about 16 months.
6. Honduras’ TPS ends JAN. 2020. That’s in 20 months.

The remaining countries with effective protections: Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, all of which are experiencing conflict and war.

Without TPS, community members will be removed from the workforce, lose access to health insurance, and lose any sense of stability in the U.S. Without the protection of TPS, these once legal immigrants will fall into an undocumented status. It is not clear how and if DHS will persecute these immigrants for deportation, but as part of the application, TPS immigrants take regular background checks and update personal information with USCIS.

What now?

The American public can choose to act. If immigrants are not protected at a national level, they can be protected at a local or state level. In California, for example, a court decision is expanding permanent residency to TPS holders with family ties to permanent residents and citizens. People can choose to vote in all elections: local, state, and national. People can choose to call or write to a congress member. People can choose to attend a local solidarity event. People can choose to join the #SaveTPS movement. More importantly, action is a choice, and that choice largely belongs to that of permanent residents and citizens, who must choose to gift their voice to the thousands losing a say about their bodies.

The immigrant community labors for America: “they will pack Thanksgiving turkeys. They will clean the office after the holiday party.” It is no sign of gratitude to choose inaction. Who needs to be removed from a community for people to care? Which mother? Which father? Which friend? Which co-worker? Which neighbor?

Notice TPS. Notice that TPS is not in the news unless it’s for a termination notice.

For more information on TPS and Claudia’s personal TPS narrative, visit her blog where a version of this essay appears.

Claudia Rojas is a poeta from El Salvador. She holds a BA in English from George Mason University.  Find her poems in The Acentos Review, Poetry is Dead, and The Northern Virginia Review. Find her on Instagram.