Justice for immigrants can’t be temporary

January 16, 2018

Lider Restrepo argues that we need to fight to preserve Temporary Protected Status from Trump's attacks, but also fight for permanent citizenship.

ON JANUARY 8, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen N. Nielsen announced the termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people originally from El Salvador who have been living in the U.S. The termination date is delayed until September 9, 2019 "to allow for an orderly transition."

El Salvador first received the status in 2001 in the wake of devastation caused by earthquakes and landslides. Since then, according to Nielsen, "Schools and hospitals damaged by the earthquakes have been reconstructed and repaired, homes have been rebuilt, and money has been provided for water and sanitation and to repair earthquake damaged roads and other infrastructure."

Therefore, over 200,000 people are being told they need to uproot their lives because Homeland Security has decided that "the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist."

Of course, what isn't mentioned is how, since 2001, hundreds of thousands of people have since replanted their roots in this country; how over 90 percent of them have jobs and about a quarter have mortgages; how more than half have been in the United States for 20 years or more; and how they have an estimated 160,000 to 190,000 American-born children.

Salvadoran immigrant workers take to the streets of Los Angeles
Salvadoran immigrant workers take to the streets of Los Angeles (TPS Alliance | Facebook)

Now these Salvadoran-Americans are facing lost jobs and becoming unlawful in the eyes of the state.

They will have to decide whether live underground in the U.S or return to a country many no longer consider home, where they will likely face the same violence and economic uncertainty that TPS was implemented to protect them from. Those with American-born children will have to choose whether to take them back to a place they've never known or leave them in the U.S.

THE TRUMP administration has attacked the program country by country, having last year announced the end of protected status for 45,000 Haitian, 2,500 Nicaraguan and 1,000 Sudanese immigrants.

These callous decisions are in line with the White House's racist agenda that's led to three iterations of the Muslim travel ban, ending DACA, and pushing the RAISE Act to reduce family-based immigration.

TPS was meant to be a temporary measure, but it was effectively permanent--until now--because countries like El Salvador have struggled to recover from natural disasters and subsequent destabilizing issues like economic downturn and a growth in crime. Around 17 percent of the country's economy is in the form of money sent from abroad by family, mostly from the U.S.

But it's precisely the program's temporary nature that has now put so many lives at risk of total upheaval and worse.

The framework for TPS emerged from the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when congregations of multiple faiths began organizing sanctuaries for asylum-seekers escaping civil unrest in Central and South America.

As a part of the Immigration Act of 1990, TPS was a provision designed to give the U.S. Attorney General discretion to provide citizens of designated countries authorization to work and stay in the U.S. until it was deemed safe for them to return.

This was the same law that increased the number of deportable criminal offenses and established some of the other building blocks of the expanded deportation machine that today leads to people being kicked out of the country for crimes such as jaywalking and marijuana possession.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is also a temporary protection--for undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. as children, either with their parents or by themselves.

Like TPS, DACA was a partial victory borne of struggle. It was a concession won by young immigrant activists in 2012 after the Obama administration failed to pass any form of comprehensive immigration reform and instead ramped up deportations to supposedly prove to Republicans how "serious" Democrats were about border security.

These temporary programs are ultimately inhumane for people who are displaced by economic crises, violence and natural disasters around the world--and find themselves trying to build new lives and communities in the U.S., only to have all their efforts upended by xenophobic politicians and heartless bureaucracies.

WE SHOULD defend TPS and DACA from the Trump administration's attacks, but also be clear that they are far from ideal or even adequate solutions for immigrants and their families. If we are successful in our fight to protect temporary protections, we need to use that momentum to demand much more.

Temporary programs put immigrants into a state of limbo where the state isn't forced to provide a formal citizenship process and has the power to lift protections and kick out immigrants at will.

They are in line with the overall pattern of U.S. immigration policy, which has treated immigrants and migrant labor as a reserve army to be exploited for lower pay--both to drive down the wages of all workers in the interests of capital and to serve as a scapegoat for native-born workers to blame for "stealing jobs that belonged to real Americans."

Temporary protections are also a convenient arrangement for the Democratic Party, creating a large pool of vulnerable people constantly under the threat of losing all rights if a Republican administration is brought into power.

This allows Democrats to always be seen as a necessary alternative, regardless of how badly they've sold out their promises to immigrant communities--from Bill Clinton's anti-immigrant laws that started the increase in deportations to Barack Obama's policies that took them to historically high levels.

What's needed is a direct and quick path to citizenship that isn't tied to job and educational requirements, doesn't doubly punish people who have already been through the criminal justice system, isn't tied to increased repression and doesn't string people along for a dozen years or longer, waiting to be considered a proper American.

Part of that fight is for a "clean" vote on retaining DACA, unconnected to increased money for border security, a fight currently being led by the very DREAMers who won DACA, as well as veterans of the struggle for sanctuary in the '80s.

Beyond that, we need to demand the same rights for all immigrants and convince more working-class people that when immigrants form a permanent layer of "temporary" second-class employees with fewer rights, then all of us are weaker.

Further Reading

From the archives