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Claudia Rojas has a poet’s frame. She is thin, and looks like she could easily be younger than 23. But her voice is not delicate, and when she begins to recite a poem into the microphone in her hand, even the toddlers climbing noisily up and down in their folding chairs fall quiet.
“Protected,” she begins.
“Today the protesters will go on strike, pray and fast
Their leaders said we must take risks
This is how to get noticed,
how to make noise. This is how we get saved.
But we are too old;
we were too old and too young to flee
countries, to outlive
earthquakes, hurricanes, rape, murder
Later in the year, they will pack Thanksgiving turkeys.
They will clean the office
after the holiday party. Each time, grow old.
Today the protesters speak into cameras,
try to answer the reporters’ questions
with numbers, with stories, with English
picked up through the uncertain years.
And the reporters ask, why are you worthy of notice?
Nearly 50 people listened to her last winter in the Tenants and Workers United office in Alexandria at an event she planned called “An Evening of Hope for the TPS Community.” This was the first such event she had ever organized, and it was very important to her that it would succeed.
Rojas is from El Salvador and holds Temporary Protected Status, a designation the U.S. grants to immigrants from certain countries with conditions that prevent people from returning, like an armed civil conflict or an environmental disaster. TPS holders, who must be already present in the U.S. at the time the designation is granted, can work and study here while remaining safe from deportation, but they lack a path to residency or citizenship. The program began with the Immigration Act of 1990. El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen are all TPS countries. More than 300,000 TPS holders currently live in the United States.
In the case of El Salvador, the required “extraordinary and temporary condition” was the destruction following the 7.7 magnitude earthquake in 2001. Although TPS is supposed to be temporary, it has been repeatedly renewed for Salvadorans over the course of 17 years.
On Jan. 8, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced that the program for El Salvador would be terminated on Sept. 9, 2019.
When September 2019 arrives, Rojas will no longer be in the United States legally. She, along with her parents, will lose her work authorization, her driver’s license, her access to health insurance, and her safety from deportation. TPS is also set to terminate for Haiti, Sudan, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Honduras within the next year-and-a-half.
For those who lose their TPS status, options are limited. They can pursue a path to citizenship if they meet certain requirements for asylum or a relative or spouse can sponsor them. TPS holders can return to their country of origin, where they may have few ties. Finally, they can choose to remain living in the U.S. without documentation—a life in the shadows.
The end of TPS for El Salvador and Honduras will have a visible impact on D.C. According to an analysis of census data in a 2017 report by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, 32,359 Salvadoran TPS holders and 5,538 Honduran TPS holders live in the D.C. metropolitan area. TPS holders work for construction companies and restaurants, clean office buildings, and run businesses. They pay mortgages and taxes. Their children, many of them U.S. citizens, attend public schools.
Full Disclosure: I donated $300 to an organization advocating for residency for TPS holders, the National TPS Alliance, after I finished work on the original draft of this article. The money came out of a $3,500 award Georgetown University and the Landegger Charitable Foundation gave me for community service work at the end of my senior year this past spring.
I learned about D.C.’s immigrant worker population over the past four years of studying labor at Georgetown University and working for labor rights on and off campus. I was a student during and after the 2016 presidential election, and I saw some of my immigrant classmates face the uprooting of their lives because of where they were born. The week after the election, my worker-justice themed house on Georgetown’s Magis Row was filled with students discussing how to protect undocumented students. I attended a few workshops on immigrant rights. Around me, people feared for their families.
I reported this article for a journalism class, and found my interview subjects in the process of working on this story.
Rojas graduated from George Mason University in 2017. She started college after 10th grade at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, which is designed to take younger students. She came to understand the meaning of her status when she started looking for scholarships. She was not eligible for any loans or scholarships from the government.
“I felt that I belonged in my community, and no one told me otherwise. I didn’t grow up thinking about my immigration status,” she says. “I grew up thinking I was like everybody else.”
Rojas likes to have a plan, but when it comes to the impending end of the TPS program, she is hoping she won’t have to make one. She wants to be a poetry and creative writing professor, and tutored other students to support herself through college.
“I love lesson planning,” she said in the Woodrow Wilson Library in Fairfax County on a cold Monday last winter. “I’m all about planning. I planned my whole life, and it didn’t work out, but I’m all about planning, so it just excites me to put a lesson together and figure out how to engage people.”
Rojas arrived in Virginia with her parents when she was 6 years old in 2001, following the earthquake in El Salvador. Now she lives with her mom in Falls Church, in an immigrant-populated neighborhood where she says apartments are cheap to rent but poorly maintained since many undocumented residents are scared to complain. Since graduating from college, she has done temp work and internships, but has struggled to find a long-term job when employers would rather hire permanent residents or citizens.
After working her way through college to pay her portion of the tuition—both Simon’s Rock and George Mason awarded her some merit scholarships—she wants to use her degree to give herself and her mom a better life. “Part of the dream is to give back to her. The fields of construction and cleaning, those are really hard fields,” says Rojas. “They’re dignified jobs, but people who do those jobs, they walk away with a lot of health issues.” Her mom, who works multiple cleaning jobs, has knee pain and pre-diabetes.
Ask TPS holders about the moment they heard the program would be terminated, and one word comes up again and again: shock. Everyone knew TPS was impermanent, but it had been renewed so many times. The government renewed TPS for El Salvador every 18 months, and those with the designation have had to re-register each time, most recently for a fee of $495.
TPS beneficiaries fear what will happen to their children when the status ends. Many TPS parents have U.S. citizen children, or their families are a mix of undocumented, TPS, and citizen members. TPS holders from Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador have 273,000 U.S. citizen children, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Migration Studies. When the status ends, these families will have to decide who will stay and who will go—whether or not they can remain a family within these borders.
Rojas’ brother is 15 and, unlike her, a citizen. “He’s very young so he doesn’t fully understand it and he’s also going through a really hard age, where not everything makes sense to him. So we’ve told him that we have this status, that he’s a citizen and he’s different, and that it’s up to him whether he wants to stay. This is where he was born. This is his country.”
Immigrant rights organizations like the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in D.C. are trying to help individuals and to sway Congress to protect TPS holders. Sarah Hall Aguila is CARECEN’s Director of Operations. She maintains the organization’s financials and fundraising, supervises staff, and works on the organization’s advocacy side.
CARECEN started as a legal clinic for Salvadorans and other Central Americans fleeing civil wars. In the 37 years since its founding, it has expanded from legal services to organizing tenants, and has provided financial literacy training and access to the banking system. Since the very beginning, it was an organization created by people in the D.C. Central American immigrant community to address the needs of immigrants. Other D.C. groups, like Ayuda and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, help immigrants determine their legal options if their TPS expires without the possibility of a renewal.
These are the main options for TPS holders who want permanent residency: They can apply for asylum on an individual basis, have their employer sponsor them, marry a U.S. citizen, or have their U.S. citizen children who are 21 or over sponsor them for a green card. Victims of crimes who assist law enforcement can also qualify for a visa. Getting asylum is difficult, as applicants must prove that they are refugees. “You can petition for a brother or sister, but those take like 15 years,” says Aguila. “Mother, father, spouse, and children I believe right now are taking about a year or a year-and-a-half to process. They would be able to petition for them as a relative, and then through that petition the former TPS holder would have legal permanent residency.”
The estimated processing time for a green card petitioned for by an immediate citizen relative, like a child or spouse, is nine to 20 months in D.C., according to the the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Salvadorans or Hondurans whose citizen siblings petitioned for them on or before Dec. 22, 2004 are just now getting their applications approved, according to the State Department August visa bulletin.
Even those with a path to citizenship may face unexpected hurdles. Luis, who asked to go by his first name only, benefits from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama administration program that protects beneficiaries from deportation and allows them to work and go to school. But his mother is a TPS holder from El Salvador. She is lucky in that she can become a citizen by marrying her citizen boyfriend. However, because she received a deportation letter before she got her TPS, she needs to clear the order before she can become naturalized. “It’s almost like a pardon that you have to pay for,” says Luis, 25. His mother’s lawyer told them he would charge $6,000 in legal costs, including the pardon, and the process of filing a court order for the marriage.
TPS holders who choose to stay without a status will join the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The change in their status will have an impact. TPS allows people to join the formal workforce.
Aguila remembers an early rally held outside the White House to protest the TPS decision. She spoke to workers laying sod in the park across the street from the White House, and remembers that even those workers who didn’t have TPS themselves knew a fellow worker who did.
Some TPS-holding parents are seeking arrangements for their U.S.-citizen children to remain here if they have to leave, pursuing legal guardianships with friends or relatives to protect their young kids. Children who do return to El Salvador or Honduras could become targets for gang recruitment, so remaining in the U.S., even without their families, could keep them safe.
President Donald Trump’s administration said it terminated TPS for El Salvador because it deemed the country to be fully recovered from the earthquake and capable of taking back its citizens. Although the infrastructure damaged by the earthquake has improved, gang violence has grown. Aguila says that now gangs are targeting younger children as well as local businesses. The State Department has a Level 3 travel advisory on El Salvador, meaning U.S. travelers should reconsider their travel there due to crime.
Wages are lower in El Salvador than in the United States, a problem made worse by El Salvador’s 2000 decision to switch to the U.S. dollar, which raised real prices of common goods.
Most TPS holders have returned seldomly, if at all, to their countries of origin. “El Salvador feels like a foreign country because I’ve never visited. I know I was born there but it still—it’s not the same because this is where I grew up,” says Rojas. El Salvador may be a source of pride, but it’s not home.
Congress has the ability to pass a bill that would allow TPS holders to stay, or provide them with a path to residency, and so Congress is where Aguila has focused her advocacy efforts. “There are still congressional representatives—they don’t know what TPS is. They understand DACA and Dreamers, but TPS has ben overlooked by those. So a lot of the advocacy work that we’ve been trying to do is educate them as well, or get senators to educate fellow senators,” says Aguila.
CARECEN clients who speak English are recruited to talk to journalists about their lives, their struggles, and their families—explaining why they believe they should be allowed to stay. However, many TPS holders are held back by fear: With the present uncertainty, they do not want to advertise their status by telling their stories. Many TPS holders from El Salvador survived that country’s civil war, leaving residual fears of the consequences of outspoken political engagement.
The current presidential administration has obliterated part of their advocacy strategy. “With the Obama administration, we might have known somebody who knew somebody who could get us a meeting with somebody higher up in the White House. But now? We have no access, we don’t even know anybody who’s even on that side of the fence,” says Aguila. “If we say we’re an immigrant rights group or organization, they would come back with the same pretty hateful rhetoric that’s in the media,” she says.
Nanci, 24, and her older sister Mayra are daughters of Salvadoran immigrants who initially received TPS before becoming naturalized. They asked to go by their first names only. Their parents’ D.C. store sells Salvadoran products and provides money transfer services to immigrants sending remittances to their families. Without TPS, their business will suffer. “If they’re no longer here, who will be our clients?” asks Nanci. She estimates that around 80 percent of the store’s income comes from money transfers, mostly from people who are sending money home to pay for expenses like healthcare bills. “That’s why they come here, to pay for all the things that, if they stayed there, they wouldn’t be able to pay for.”
According to Nanci, people in her D.C. community with TPS are trying to sell their property to return home. Others are considering migrating to other Spanish speaking countries like Colombia and Spain, or moving to Canada.
Most TPS holders are of Nanci’s parents’ generation. They have not gotten the same kind of political or media attention as the “Dreamers,” young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
This frustrates young immigrants like Rojas, who is both a Dreamer and a member of the TPS community. She sees TPS mentioned as an afterthought in advocacy efforts for Dreamers, who tend to be younger people who have taken on a more active role in organizing themselves. The public often sees them as a benefit to the U.S. economy. “I feel like the Dreamers have something to their advantage, where they came here at a young age so in a way it’s like the country’s already invested in them, so why not continue investing so they can bring back more to the country?” says Nanci. Meanwhile, the benefits of TPS holders taking undervalued jobs as cooks or at construction sites go overlooked.
In the D.C. area, TPS holders make up 20 percent of the construction and hospitality workforce, according to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s office. According to the Center for Migration Studies, 100 percent of adult Salvadoran TPS holders in D.C. are employed.
According to World Bank Data, remittances make up 17 percent of El Salvador’s GDP and are the country’s greatest single source of income. Aguila says that for many of the immigrants that CARECEN works with, sending money home is a non-negotiable expense. “We know that’s something they’re going to continue to do even if it puts them in the red,” she says.
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center calculated that the U.S. would lose $45.2 billion in GDP over a decade with the loss of Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian workers. (The 2017 report used census data to find the number of TPS holders and multiplied that total by the average wage earned by beneficiaries from these countries.) According to the ILRC, ending TPS for these countries would cost employers $967 million in the costs of hiring and training new employees, based on a turnover cost of 21.4 percent of an employee’s yearly salary, and reduce Social Security and Medicare contributions by $6.9 million.
Outside the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Columbia Heights every Sunday, women set up tables to sell things—everything from clothes to taquitos to packaged snack foods with Spanish names. They sell on Sundays to take advantage of the crowd at the noon Spanish-language Mass. By the end of the service, late afternoon light flows in through the stained glass windows on the church’s right side. Well-behaved, neatly dressed kids crowd into pews, and after the service descend with their families to the basement to eat pupusas with rice and salad.
Sacred Heart’s pastor, Father Moises Villalta, has lived in the D.C. area for 37 years. He immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador as a 17-year-old, speaking no English, following his older sister. Three generations of his family followed. “My parents died here,” he says. “We buried them here.” D.C. has gone through changes during his lifetime, most recently as Salvadorans and other immigrants move out of the District and into Virginia and Maryland due to rising housing costs in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.
Villalta does not know how many of his parishioners are TPS holders, but he worries about how the end of the program for certain countries will impact D.C. businesses and the underage children of TPS holders. His church and its packed Spanish language Masses make up a faith community but also a social life. His church has hosted “know your rights” trainings with Catholic Charities and works with Washington Interfaith Network to organize people with TPS to fight to stay.
“Our Masses are still packed—nothing has changed. There is a sense of hope that things are going to change,” Villalta says of his parish community. “They keep fighting. Our people continue to come, they haven’t given up.”
He sees his role as helping people through the crisis that has arrived for his community. “I’m not going to fix everything. But as a pastor I feel that I have to accompany people, to walk with them, to be side-by-side. That’s the way I see myself, not only in the spiritual part but also providing any services that we can provide.” He talks about the future of Dreamers in Mass, gives young people space to organize, and exhorts green card-holding worshippers to become U.S. citizens and therefore voters on issues that impact other immigrants.
Although Villalta has hope for his community and faith in its organizing ability, he has little positive to say about the politicians bargaining over his people’s fates. “It’s like a tennis court, playing with human beings and people’s lives,” he says. His disappointment encompasses past administrations’ attitudes toward people from TPS countries in addition to the Trump administration’s stance, although he notes that current rhetoric around immigration has gotten worse.
“No one takes seriously the call to action, they keep postponing,” he says. These postponements of a long term solution for TPS holders have long frustrated advocates for immigration reform and immigrants alike, as they keep TPS holders in a twilight zone between being undocumented and being permanent residents or visa holders.
TPS was always a patch, an incomplete fix, to the problem of immigration from distressed countries. From an immigrant’s perspective, although TPS provided work authorization and safety from deportation, the program provided no path forward besides praying for yet another renewal every six to 18 months.
TPS also has its opponents—those who believe the U.S. could better address migration from countries in the midst of emergencies, without providing relief to its undocumented immigrants already here.
A 2014 paper in the Journal on Migration and Human Security studied 25 years of TPS and found the program flawed in two main ways: It fails to live up to Congressional intent to allow only temporary safety within the U.S. for immigrants, and it strands recipients in legal limbo. Author Claire Bergeron recommended that a better solution would allow long-term TPS holders (defined as having TPS for over 10 years) to apply for residency, and implement a program to help beneficiaries of short-term TPS to return to their home countries.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., proposed a bill in May 2017 that would reform the TPS program by putting decision-making power into the hands of Congress, requiring that a bill be passed to designate a country as qualifying for TPS and imposing limits on the total amount of time TPS can exist for a given country. Groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA expressed support for the bill, since it represents a return to the compromise of only temporary relief for struggling countries rather than an indefinite stay for migrants. The bill has not made it out of committee.
In agreement that the TPS program has grown beyond its original purpose, the Trump administration has favored a stricter interpretation of the executive’s ability to extend TPS once conditions in a country have improved. However, in separate interviews on National Public Radio, DHS Secretary Nielsen and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have told Congress to legislate a path to residency or citizenship for TPS holders who have spent years in the U.S.
TPS holders who want to stave off the program’s termination face an uphill battle, but advocates and policymakers have found some avenues of hope.
On Feb. 22, the American Immigration Council filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of TPS holders, intending to make uniform the naturalization process across states. Separately, appeals courts in Seattle and Cleveland have ruled that TPS holders there can get green cards or work visas.
On June 22, the first hearing was held in San Francisco for a class action suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that argues that the Trump administration’s decision to end TPS for Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Sudan was motivated by racial animus and violates the rights of TPS holders’ citizen children.
A similar lawsuit in Massachusetts challenging the decision to end TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti gained the support of 17 state attorneys, including D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, in the form of an amicus brief. On July 24, a federal judge denied the Trump administration’s motion to dismiss the case, allowing it to continue. Racine also joined 19 state attorneys general in March in asking Congress to provide permanent lawful status to TPS holders whose statuses are set to end.
The National TPS Alliance is an organization formed to represent the needs of TPS holders from each of the countries for which TPS is in jeopardy. It has 35 committees across the U.S. including one based in Virginia and another representing D.C. and Maryland, with the greater goal of lobbying Congress for a legislative solution that provides a path to residency without conditions like increased border security.
Two bills in particular have gained their support. One is the Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and Emergency (SECURE) Act, proposed in November by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., which would allow TPS holders to apply for legal permanent residency. Also in November, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., proposed the American Promise Act, which would put TPS beneficiaries who have been in the U.S. for three years on a path toward residency. Neither bill has progressed to a vote.
Two other bills proposed in the fall of 2017 to provide relief to TPS holders have also failed to progress. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fl., proposed the Extending Status Protection for Eligible Refugees with Established Residency Act (ESPERER) of 2017, which would allow former TPS holders from Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to become legal permanent residents. The ASPIRE-TPS Act of 2017, proposed by Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., would create a new six-year-long protective status for individuals from countries with a TPS designation as of Jan. 1, 2017, and allow those who can show extreme hardship to apply for residency.
Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke out against the termination of TPS from El Salvador in her State of the District Address in March. She also announced a summer 2018 trip to San Salvador to begin a sister city relationship with the city’s mayor, Nayib Bukele. “As President Trump builds walls, we will continue to strengthen relationships,” said Bowser. She is leading that delegation to San Salvador this week. However, unless Congress or the President acts, there is a limit to what mayors like Bowser can do to determine the immigration status of TPS holders within their cities.
Haydi Torres, 21, arrived in the U.S. from Honduras in 2012 just before her 16th birthday. Her dad had lived in Virginia since 1996, and gained TPS after the 1998 hurricane. He watched her grow up from a distance, listening to her first words on audio cassette tapes. When Torres arrived in the United States, she spoke no English and didn’t know if Virginia was a city or a state. All she knew was that she was coming to finally meet her father and reunite with her family. Now, after six years together, her father’s status is at risk.
Torres herself arrived too late to qualify for TPS, and since she is undocumented, she understands the uncertainty that losing his status could bring into his life. When she was in high school, her mother, who is also undocumented and therefore ineligible for a driver’s license in Virginia, was pulled over while driving her the five minutes from her high school to their apartment. This was the moment Torres realized the implications of her status. “I got very scared because I remember seeing lights in the front mirror. My mom just panicked.” When Torres’ mother was unable to produce a license, she remembers the officer telling them, “I don’t know if you stole this car, I don’t know who you are, I don’t know if you have drugs in this car.”
He told Torres, who was trying hard not to cry as she translated, “I could take your mom to jail right now.” He took his gun out and showed it to her. Ultimately, the officer wrote them a ticket and they went to court without incident. But she remembers that moment of fear.
Her father worries that remaining in the United States will put his family at risk for deportation. Honduras has the same State Department warning level as El Salvador, and is also afflicted with gang activity and corruption. Torres described her home country as lacking basic medical and educational infrastructure and as a repressive and corrupt regime where journalists and lawyers are persecuted.
A sense of helplessness struck Torres following the announcement of the six-month extension for TPS for Honduras. She and other immigrant activist students met with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in November, but she remembers being the only one in the room concerned with TPS.
She began to envision an event that would humanize TPS holders, typically parents, in the same way that the Dreamers were humanized. Her meeting with Schumer had made her feel powerless.
“We just labor for their country. Our lives don’t matter at all,” she says. She wanted an event for the community, not the politicians. “You love pupusas as much as I do. But I love the people who make them,” she says. She meant to show her father that he was not alone.
On Feb. 10, TPS holders and their supporters piled into that room provided by Tenants and Workers United in Alexandria for an evening of food and performances. There were not enough folding chairs for everyone to sit, so people hovered in the hallway.
Stephanie Blanco, 20, is one young TPS holder Torres and Rojas invited to perform. The three of them know one another through the Virginia Intercollegiate Immigrant Alliance, a group of college immigrant rights groups in the state. The end of TPS comes for Blanco in the middle of college, after having worked hard in high school to win a scholarship from TheDream.US.
Blanco and her little sister arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 2001, when she was 4. After the earthquake, when, she says, half her house fell down the cliff upon which it was built, her parents moved to the U.S. and she and her sister later joined them. Blanco’s younger brothers are citizens, but her 14-year-old sister is a TPS holder.
At the event, Torres read her construction worker father’s poetry. Her accent becomes thicker when she gets excited or touched. “You’re more than your status. You’re not only a human being but you’re a human being who is able to produce beautiful songs, write beautiful poems, draw, cook,” she said.
“Mi papa es un poeta,” she told the gathered TPS holders and their allies. My dad is a poet. She read, in Spanish, a poem her father Juan de Dios wrote in 1998 for Haydi’s mother and grandmother called “Regalo de Dios”—Gift of God.
The crowd listened as she recited his work. This is the last stanza:
“En tus ojos hay amor y ternura
un amor tan grande y puro,
que solo tú puedes dar; siendo
humilde o intelectual el amor siempre es igual.”
“In your eyes there is love and tenderness
A love so great and pure
that only you can give; being
humble or intellectual, love is always equal.
Claudia Rojas says that writing poems helps her process her feelings, and express her identities as a woman and an immigrant. She loves to talk about the challenge of writing in fixed forms—the structures like sonnets and villanelles.
“I like the idea of them, that there’s this structure that you have to follow, because I feel like that fits in with my life right now,” she says. “There’s these limits placed for me, so it’s really fun to play around with the challenge because it kind of empowers me. I feel like I have power when I am able to make the structure work.”