Thursday, May 31, 2018
Guest blogger: Corie Schwabenland Garcia, Masters in Migration Studies student, University of San Francisco
A serious re-examination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is long overdue, yet it has taken the cancellation of TPS for several countries in fairly rapid succession to re-energize this conversation. In September and November of 2017, Sudan, then Nicaragua and Haiti lost their TPS . In January 2018, El Salvador followed suit. A few months later, in April and May respectively, nationals of Nepal and Honduras received notice that their TPS would be ending. Between these six countries, an estimated 346,300 people may lose their ability to live in the United States -- and the potential collateral damage (to their families and communities) is unquantifiable .
On its surface, TPS is a humanitarian grace - and in some ways it has been. Since its inception as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, it has allowed a temporary and conditional immigration status for nationals of 21 countries, including those listed above, during periods of instability in their countries of origin like environmental disasters, ongoing armed conflict and civil wars, or other “extraordinary and temporary conditions” that could prevent them from returning home safely . If granted TPS, one obtains protection from deportation, as well as permission to work in the U.S., for a pre-designated period between 6 and 18 months at a time .
Let’s say you were a Honduran university student in the U.S. in Fall 1998, preparing for graduation and the subsequent expiry of your visa the next Spring. Simultaneously, you watched from afar as Hurricane Mitch ravaged your country, over 6 days killing an estimated 7,000 people and shattering some 50 years of economic development via severe damage to infrastructure and exportable crops  . You knew you would soon be expected to return home, but were unsure of what would be left for you to go back to. Enter TPS: if you applied for, and received it, your student visa would still expire, but you could remain in the U.S. without worrying about deportation -- for the duration of the TPS granted. Herein lies the problem: you are protected for as long as you have TPS, as many times as it is renewed ...until the U.S. deems that the initial triggering circumstances are over and your country has recovered. When that time comes, your protection ends: your expired visa means you are vulnerable and deportable, no matter how long you’ve been in the U.S. or what roots you’ve put down. The cancellation of TPS can also take place at any time-- after 3 years, 5 years, or 10+ years --shattering the false sense of security each subsequent renewal worked to build.
In the case of Honduras, TPS will have lasted for some 21 years by the time it ends on January 5th, 2020. On May 4th of this year, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen announced that “the disruption of living conditions in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch that served as the basis for its TPS designation has decreased to a degree that it should no longer be regarded as substantial,” thus justifying its termination . While it is true that the initial environmental condition that yielded Honduras’ TPS-- Hurricane Mitch and its direct damage --is no longer in existence, it remains to be seen whether Honduras ever truly recovered. James D. Nelson (former ambassador to Honduras) and John D. Feeley (former U.S. Ambassador to Panama) argue that Nielsen’s assertion of recovery only makes sense “under a strict constructionist view,” and fails to recognize “the pathologies underlying the hurricane’s aftermath -- extreme violence, lack of economic opportunity, and poor governance” still plaguing the country . Proponents of the continuation of TPS have also rightly questioned how Honduras was deemed safe enough for Honduran nationals to return to at the same time that the U.S. state department issued travel warnings to our own citizens, urging them to avoid the country due to “violent crime” and the inability of local authorities to respond to it . This begs an important question about TPS: how humanitarian is it to afford TPS-holders long-term American lives (in all senses, save papers designating them “legality” or a path towards it) that can be ripped apart at any time due to unclear standards of “recovery”?
In addition to being inhumane, it is simply inefficient to remove the TPS-holders that are soon to be out of status, and essentially slated for removal. It remains to be seen what benefit the U.S. will logically derive from removing TPS-holders from our society (at a average cost of $10,854 per deportee, one should note) and will rather feel very deeply the loss of their contributions: were the U.S. to remove Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian TPS holders, a respective $109.4 billion, $31.3 billion, and $23.2 billion would be lost from our nation’s GDP. In addition, the U.S. citizen children of Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian TPS holders-- 192,700; 53,500; and 27,000 children, respectively --would either lose their parents or be deported alongside them to countries they do not know . And this is only a sample impact: Nicaraguan TPS-holders, though a smaller group, have existed in the U.S. for the same 21-year length as Hondurans, and are also shaken by the potential end of their status. Say several Nicaraguan TPS holders quoted in the Miami Herald :
Maria Elena Hernandez, who lived in South Florida during Hurricane Mitch and watched
on television as it destroyed most of her country: “I decided to stay, to help my country
and my family from here. This is where I have my brothers, my nephews, my job, my life.
This country is a world leader in human rights and criticizes countries that don’t respect
them. And now it wants to send us to Nicaragua?”
A 63-year-old woman who lives in Little Havana: “We did not expect this because they
extended this program so many times that we’re practically native. My daughter came
when she was really small and studied here. She speaks more English than Spanish. We
have nothing in Nicaragua.”
A 62-year-old man approaching retirement age: “I worked so many years contributing to
Social Security, the retirement plan. Now I wanted to relax. Now it seems I am going to
lose everything that I earned all these years.”
TPS holders are not, as opponents to the program rush to present them, mere “aliens” demanding amnesty and perpetual extensions of our gratitude with nothing in return. As the above quotes demonstrate, they are members of our country, and integral parts of our local communities, with jobs, homes, kids, and lives that they worked hard for, the same as domestic-born citizens. For years we have allowed them a facade of permanence, and lives acquainted with, but never completely afforded the American dream. Now, in a move that is both inhumane and inefficient, we allow DHS to discontinue TPS country by country without a second thought towards all the lives that depend on it, and for what, to encourage them all to go home and come back the “right” way? The U.S. is acting rashly to solve a problem it created on its own via lackadaiscal maintenance of TPS without thoughtful future planning, and deporting nearly 350,000 immigrants will not solve it. Rather, it will leave a void in our economy, our communities, and in the lives of the citizen children/spouses/family members of TPS-holders.
We are not moving towards safer borders by deporting residents that could not have been granted TPS without clean criminal records to begin with, nor are we building a foundation for smarter immigration policy by simply axing a large portion of it without anything to fill the void . All we are doing is moving further and further from the humane and welcoming nation we purport to be. Yet, there is still good news: we can remain true to our ideals, and justly support TPS holders by affording them a pathway to citizenship, in recognition of the devoted and contributing members of this country that they are. We can, and must do so -- there is simply no compelling reason not to.