The Temporary Protected Status Program is Under Threat and So Are Thousands of Immigrants — Here’s How You Can Save Them

Two people embracing.

This year has battered homes and spirits over and over again. And, each time the news broke about disasters from Hurricane Harvey to Hurricane Irma to Hurricane Jose and finally Hurricane Katia, I was overcome with a feeling of helplessness.

I have never experienced a natural disaster like the ones we saw this year and have no idea how I would be able to pick up the pieces of my life after seeing my house flooded or smashed in front of me.

What does it feel like to wait for electricity for weeks? Or try to cross the border to find food and clean water? What does it feel like to have no protection from thieves or gangs roaming the streets and to witness people being murdered? What does it feel like to lose a loved one to a storm?

I don’t think many people in the U.S. would question pulling together resources to give shelter to Texan Hurricane Harvey victims until infrastructure and basic supplies were available. So what about international victims?

Outside of sending aid that often ends up not serving the neediest, there is so much more the American government can do to support victims of natural disasters like provide a place to stay.

That was the very intent of the Temporary Protected Status program—to give relief to people in other countries living in emergency situations and allow them to legally live in the United States.

But now with that very program under attack, the safety of hundreds of thousands of innocent immigrants is under threat.

What is TPS?

TPS stands for ‘temporary protected status,’ a program that began in 1990 and offers an interim authorization for immigrants from particular countries to live and work in the United States for humanitarian reasons, like escaping hurricanes, earthquakes, or war.

The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the Secretary of State have the power to grant this status and it’s granted for six to 18 months at a time for as long as deemed necessary.

Which countries have TPS?

Currently, the countries where immigrants have been granted temporary protected status are Haiti, El Salvador, Syria, Nepal, Honduras, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Nicaragua, and South Sudan.

More than 320,000 immigrants have temporary protected status in the United States. Every single one of the countries these immigrants came from became unsafe to stay in. Their homelands went through such turmoil and traumatic events that outside emergency relief was life-saving.

These are two of the main reasons they fled:

Natural Disasters

Earthquakes are responsible for the largest amount of immigrants currently receiving TPS in the U.S. El Salvador in 2001, Haiti in 2010, and Nepal in 2015 were all devastated by high-magnitude earthquakes.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and the countries are still struggling to recover to this day. The people who didn’t have the opportunity to leave the countries are forced to live with violence, disease outbreaks, damaged homes and schools, and poverty in the aftermath.

Honduras and Nicaragua have had TPS since 1998 after being hit by Hurricane Mitch, the worst natural disaster in that region in over 200 years that claimed 11,000 lives and displaced millions.

This hurricane also made Honduras uninhabitable because it destroyed 70 percent of the country’s crops. Without shelter or food, there was no way the government could provide for its people.

War & Violence

Civil wars and armed conflict are additional reasons why countries can petition to receive temporary protection for its citizens. Syria and Yemen were granted TPS in 2012 and 2015, respectively, due to their bloody civil wars that are currently responsible for the greatest number of refugees in the world.

Somalia received TPS in 1991 due to a civil war, drought, and famine which continues to this day.  Sudan received TPS in 1997 because of its civil war as did South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, in 2011.

It’s not hard to understand why innocent civilians would want to escape their warring countries to go somewhere they can live, work, and go to school without fear.

Their hope is to return home one day when there is peace, but so far none of these countries are stable enough to fully provide for their citizens and guarantee their safety.

Who qualifies for TPS?

According to the Pew Research Center, immigrants with TPS make up 3% of the 11 undocumented immigrants in the U.S.  

To qualify for TPS, immigrants must be from one of the designated countries, pay the pricey application fee of $705, have lived continuously in the U.S. from a specific date (which differs between countries), and go through all the required security and background checks. This is just as thorough as the refugee and asylum process.

Once they’ve gotten TPS, immigrants are protected from deportation, can work legally and apply for permission to travel abroad for a set time. They are not, however, eligible for public assistance.

TPS can be renewed for each country, based on the government’s evaluation of the situation. The decision has to be made at least 60 days before the expiration date, which gives immigrants the opportunity to renew for another $655.

Once the TPS term is up, these immigrants will be considered undocumented again. For the immigrants who come from countries that lose their status or simply can’t afford to renew the application, this means that they can’t try to stay in the country longer.

But, unlike undocumented individuals, TPS holders are all registered with the government, so they can’t hide. Deportation for them is a more serious and very real consequence that no employer or friend can save them from.

Who is losing TPS?

While TPS was granted for temporary humanitarian relief and not meant to automatically lead to permanent residence or U.S. citizenship, there is no legitimate reason for the U.S. government to be taking these protections away right now.

Just like with refugee resettlement and asylum protection, the new administration is making sweeping moves to get rid of people it thinks don’t belong here—namely Black and Brown immigrants and low-wage workers.

There is no preparation from their countries to adequately receive and provide for their returned nationals and even if there was, most of them consider themselves to be American with American children, spouses, friends, and communities.

Targeting the TPS program is part of a new U.S. immigration system that values privilege and exclusivity over humanitarian responsibility and equality.

On Nov. 6, 2017, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Elaine Duke announced the end of TPS for Nicaraguans will be in January 2019 and for Hondurans, July 2018.

On Sept. 18, it was announced that Sudan’s TPS designation will be terminated on Nov. 2, 2018. Back in May, Haitians received a renewal of TPS for another six months but on Nov. 20, they learned TPS for them will end on July 22, 2019.

These announcements are troubling for many reasons, but primarily because many of these countries have not fully recovered as the DHS claims.

Haitians are the second largest group of TPS recipients and the government of Haiti actually asked the President to extend Haiti’s designation.

The island had been poorly managed and international aid efforts have failed to ensure proper sanitation, shelter, and housing even after all these years.

This program has protected immigrants from the crime, conflict, poverty, famine and weak infrastructure still pushing thousands of migrants to escape from their homes.

Life may not be perfect in the U.S., but at least immigrants have basic necessities—like a house, job, access to healthcare, food, and water— covered.

This decision will also likely break up many families that have been living and working peacefully in the U.S. for decades.

More than 80% of TPS holders are employed, particularly in service industries. The Center for American Progress reports that Salvadorans with TPS have been living in the U.S. for an average of 21 years and 45,500 of them have mortgages.

There are 273,200 children born in the U.S. to TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti.

For these families, the United States is home. Sudden deportation means willingly turning their lives into chaos by pushing TPS holders to live without documentation, forcing parents to take their American born children back with them or facing the risk of losing them for good.

What can YOU do?

Immigration reform is already a difficult platform to push for with the current administration as undocumented individuals and refugees are demonized as threats to our democracy.

Here are some ways to support TPS recipients and their families:

  • Follow the online conversation around #SaveTPS
  • Participate in actions and let your representatives know you care about renewing the program and passing legislation such as:
    • A bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress called the ASPIRE Act, which would allow all TPS immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least 5 years to apply for permanent residency
    • The American Promise Act is another legislation introduced this year to further the protections for TPS holders from certain countries who have resided in the U.S. for at least 3 years and give them a pathway to citizenship
  • Get involved with knowledgeable organizations like Alianza Americas, We Belong Together, TPS Alliance and the Undocublack Network.

Nesima Aberra is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. Nesima is a writer and digital strategist passionate about social impact. She received her undergraduate degrees in Journalism and Global Studies from Arizona State University and her master’s degree in International Media from American University. In her free time, she enjoys reading, creative writing, traveling, and performing with The Sanctuaries and the Muslim Writers Collective. Follow her on Twitter: @NesimaAberra.