Alongside the growing anti-immigrant sentiments that came out of the previous administration’s rhetoric, calls to end the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) program caused immediate pushback from TPS organizations and those who benefit from the program.
Congress created TPS in the Immigration Act of 1990 to provide nationals of specifically designated countries that are confronting an ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or extraordinary conditions with protections, as returning to those countries would present extremely difficult and unsafe conditions for them. TPS has been a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of individuals already in the United States when problems in a home country have made their return untenable. TPS status provides designated recipients with a work permit and protections from deportations.
This protection allows immigrants to have work authorization and contribute to the United States economy, society and culture. Many TPS holders have been living and working in the United States for years, some with 20 or 30 plus years under the status. They have families, U.S. citizen children, and they are homeowners and business owners.
In 2017, the National TPS Alliance organized to denounce the calls for the program’s end and to advocate for a safer alternative for holders, who are constantly unsure of the program’s continuation. The organization is rooted in the lobbying effort of TPS holders from all qualifying countries as they call on Congress and others to create an opportunity for permanent residency for all holders.
The National TPS Alliance is formed and led by TPS beneficiaries from across the United States, combining advocacy efforts at a national level to save Temporary Protected Status for all beneficiaries in the short term and to devise legislation that creates a path to permanent residency in the long term. There are around 40 committees across the Unites States and over ten non-profit organizations, groups and unions providing support at different levels.
Since the Act’s passing, protection extensions have been granted in short term periods with renewal updates uncertain until close to the end of each cycle. As a result, individuals and families who call the United States, home, are faced with the chronic worry of whether or not the program will continue to be extended. As of March 2021, 400,000 individuals from across nationalities have been covered by the program, while Burmese and Venezuelan citizens have recently qualified for it.
The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a country with eligibility if they have the following conditions:
- Ongoing armed conflict (such as civil war)
- An environmental disaster (such as earthquake of hurricane), or an epidemic
- Other extraordinary and temporary conditions
In an interview with Latina Republic, Erik Villalobos, the National TPS Alliance’s Communications Manager, spoke about the organization’s history of advocacy for TPS holders and how it has become a powerful voice in the US immigrant rights movement.
Latina Republic: What are some of the issues with the current TPS program and what are you trying to address with the work you’re doing?
Erik Villalobos: So back in 2017 we first started hearing that the Trump administration would not be renewing the TPS program as every other administration had done. They would actually terminate it and essentially, put hundreds of thousands of people at risk.
These are people that have been in the country for decades and they were going to strip them of their status and potentially deport them. [The National TPS Alliance] was born as an initiative led by directly impacted families that were trying to make sure that this didn’t happen by advocating to Congress that these folks shouldn’t be with any sort of temporary status anymore, after they’ve been here for so long; it’s time to give them permanent residency as well.
So for the past couple of years, we’ve been leading a lawsuit within the Ninth Circuit, which has allowed TPS to survive all these last couple of years and we’ve also been pressuring Congress to guarantee a permanent residency. So currently that’s where we’re at.
The lawsuit has now survived the past four years, which is a lawsuit that’s been led by TPS families that are highly involved in the work of the TPS Alliance within their own committees. Now we’re finally entering this process of mediation with the Biden administration to finally look for a settlement, which would mean that we could see redesignations of TPS for all of the countries impacted by this lawsuit, as well as potentially new TPS designations for other countries potentially benefiting millions of people under a new TPS status.
Since the beginning of the year, we’ve been pressuring Biden and the new Congress to guarantee a permanent residency through any sort of legislative mechanism that exists. Currently, we have been pushing for them to include TPS in the reconciliation package. There’s been a lot of talk about Dreamers, and now we hear that it’s not only about Dreamers and that they also want to include farmworkers, TPS holders and essential workers.
So it’s just another solid step forward with the work that we’re doing, knowing that these families are now going to be included in this legislation. We hope that by the end of this session, we will finally see that this becomes a reality and maybe we can finally get this done this year. So that’s really where we’re at right now.
Latina Republic: How does the current administration differ from the past administration in terms of being able to work with them and accessibility in connecting with them?
Erik Villalobos: I’m not going to say this administration is perfect or even pro-immigrant in any sense of the way, but they are acting more favorably. I think one big difference is that the previous administration went right after TPS. They went after DACA as well. They went after programs that had a legal status. So it was clear that it was a blatantly anti-immigrant administration. Now, we have a more favorable administration, an administration that wants to negotiate with organizations like us, negotiate with immigrant communities to try to look for a potential solution.
So we do see that that’s changed. We see that TPS is no longer under the same threat that it was before. However, the administration can only do so much and we still see this issue within the courts that the Biden administration has inherited from the Trump administration; the fact that they’ve become much more conservative, much more anti-immigrant.
It’s something that we’re still dealing with but I think it’s true, we can’t deny that this administration has been a bit more favorable. We’ve seen that things are moving in a better direction, but we still need to put a lot of pressure in order to get there.
Latina Republic: Regarding the members of Congress, what have you seen from them in terms of those who support it and those who want to end TPS, and what do the supporters propose to keep both sides of the partisanship happy?
Erik Villalobos: First with TPS, all of that relies on the Biden administration and you can also connect it to the lawsuit as well, in that the lawsuit is sort of directly connected to the re-designations that the Biden administration has been announcing over the past couple of months for Haiti, for Yemen, for Somalia.
So those are all linked to the Biden administration and congressional pressure is really based on legislation for permanent residency, but for the Biden administration, they don’t need any pressure. Aside from us and aside from the lawsuit, there’s only so much else that we could do.
Tomorrow or even today, they could fully re-designate TPS for a bunch of different countries. They could not only do that, but they could provide a new TPS status for a lot of folks who need it at the moment. Then in Congress, more specifically, it’s just to make sure that TPS is included in any legislation that could provide permanent residency.
The Dreamers, I think because they’ve been around for such a long time and they’ve been advocating for such a long time, they’re always going to be in the front of that list. What we’ve been trying to ensure is that in any legislation that includes permanent residency for Dreamers, TPS holders are also included. We have seen that change over the past couple of years.
I don’t want to say that we have any sort of specific person that’s only pushing for TPS holders at the time, and that’s fine, but we are still trying to make sure that TPS is being included, and we can see that right now. As I mentioned before, when talking about the infrastructure, the reconciliation package, we see that now they’re not only talking about Dreamers included in the immigration package; now all Democrats are on board with this immigration package, with reconciliation including Dreamers, TPS holders, farm workers and essential workers.
So that’s huge and we just need to make sure that we can make it happen. I think the finish line is the parliamentarian and that person has to approve if this can happen or not happen but at least we’re glad to see that even the Democrats are on board with not leaving anyone out. That’s what we need to do consistently just to make sure that the Democrats follow through and they’re not separating us and they’re not leaving anyone out.
Latina Republic: So what would you say is the best way to provide TPS holders with stability from the administration? Would it be permanent residency at the end?
Erik Villalobos: Permanent residency has to be the end, and that’s always going to be our main objective. Right now, we do need to put pressure on Biden just to do what he has the ability to do, which is restoring the TPS program and expanding the program, but the end all is permanent residency. The fact that you’ve had TPS holders who have been here for over 20 years now, they’ve started families, they own homes, they’ve just been very ingrained into all the different communities here in the United States and you can’t just say that we’re going to terminate the status and send them back or we’re going to keep them in limbo for so long.
After all this time, I think they just have to do what’s right and just provide a permanent residency. Another reason why they should do it is that we don’t know what’s going to happen in four years. We don’t know if we’re going to end up in this situation again with another administration that’s going to be completely anti-immigrant and just send people back.
So we do need to provide that stability And if we are talking about stability, it has to be permanent residency. Not only that, also some potential pathway to citizenship.
Latina Republic: And then how do you address the different communities, because there are Southeast Asian communities, there’s African communities, a number of different communities, how do you make sure that throughout the organization you are addressing the different circumstances of each community while also providing the same help?
Erik Villalobos: Of course. So from the very beginning, regardless of who represented the TPS Alliance, we’ve always been advocating for permanent residency for all TPS countries. One of the things that are pretty obvious is that being that the majority of TPS holders are from El Salvador and Honduras, our makeup is mostly of Central Americans.
But we do work very closely with other organizations who are advocating one hundred percent for African TPS holders, for TPS holders in the Middle East, TPS holders in Nepal, and they do also participate within the work of the TPS alliance. We work very closely with the Haitian community through different organizations as well, and we also have a membership of Haitians within the TPS Alliance.
But we do try to make sure that from the very beginning, regardless of of whether or not Nepalese or folks from Sierra Leone or Sudan, even if they don’t participate within the work of the TPS alliance, being that they are TPS holders, whatever we push for is going to make sure that they are also included and not left out.
Latina Republic: And then for TPS holders in the US, what’s it like to always be concerned about what’s going to happen next with the program? Is this a constant worry for holders?
Erik Villalobos: Definitely, so for me, my parents had TPS back when Trump canceled the program. Luckily, I was able to petition for their status when I turned 21 and now they have permanent residency. This isn’t the reality for a lot of other families.
That constant limbo is obviously frustrating, especially because there was a moment of safety for such a long period of time and that even though they didn’t have permanent residency, they were OK because they were given all of the privileges of being able to work in this country and be safe, protected from deportation. As soon as Trump comes around, that all changes.
Now ,I do want to say that there’s a little more peace and that people feel a little more relaxed, not only because there’s a different administration in office, but also because of movements like this where we have been able to demonstrate that if the community organizes, we can protect our communities from potentially being deported as well. I think the TPS Alliance has done a good job at really providing that kind of safety so people don’t feel that kind of fear anymore, but obviously it’s still around.
News like the Sanchez case, is a ruling that is going to really affect the adjustment of status that TPS holders still have at hand to adjust to a permanent residency. That obviously is bad news and it’s something that is still keeping TPS holders with a lot of uncertainty over how much longer they can stay here. So much of that fear is still very much around, but because of how things have changed over the past year people feel a bit better, but we could begin to solve all of this, take these families out of this constant limbo if Congress can just deliver on a permanent residency.
Latina Republic: And does the organization provide any direct help to the community or is the work focused mostly on resource gathering? Do you do any outreach?
Erik Villalobos: We’re more of a political organization, which is really focused on just lobbying Congress, putting pressure on the White House, putting pressure even on the judicial branch. We work with organizations that do provide the resources specifically. One of our fiscal sponsors is CARECEN in Los Angeles. The CARECENs across the entire country do a great job with providing resources, and so we do have more of the connections with the people that do that work, but we’re more focused on just the political end of things.
Latina Republic: And is there anything else that the organization is steering towards? Let’s say the whole case of the lawsuit ends, is there anything that the organization is looking forward to afterwards in terms of like any future plans, or is this the main focus?
Erik Villalobos: The main focus and the lawsuit were really just designed to provide us the breathing room to buy us the time in order to pressure Congress towards achieving our main objective, which is again, permanent residency, green cards for all TPS holders. Any settlement out of the lawsuit will unfortunately not give us a permanent residency; it has to happen through Congress.
So what we want out of the lawsuit is just full re-designation because we know that’s the farthest we could get as far as protecting TPS holders, but denouncing the actions of the previous administration would be awesome. Also, just using that announcement or using this settlement to put some real pressure on Congress to finally get something done. So the main objective is permanent residency. We’re not going to rest until that happens. We’ve also had to admit that we formed a really strong organization that’s represented and led by TPS holders from across the country. It’s a strong network and we do hope to preserve that for anything that’s to come, because we know that there’s a huge strength in this collective power that we’ve built.
Right now the objective is achieving permanent residency. We hope to get it done this year. In September, we’re actually leading a massive march of families from across the country coming to Washington, D.C., to, again, just place that pressure where it’s necessary. We hope to have legislative meetings as well, but also like a leadership assembly to continue this really important work. So we’re not going to stop until we actually get that done.
Latina Republic: And then what would you say is a contribution that TPS holders will make not only to the US but to their home countries as well?
Erik Villalobos: Of course, billions of dollars get sent from TPS holders every year. We’re talking about a lot of TPS holders that are homeowners, a lot of them are business owners, a lot of them have families not only here in the U.S., but also back home. So they clearly have a huge impact. I think the governments in these countries are also aware of that. They’ve been organizing throughout the past couple of years. We can say that they’ve become a bit politically influential over the past couple of years with their own countries in that way.
A lot of the talk of immigration in Central America has TPS holders at the forefront and the governments in these countries know that very well, and that’s why they’ve even reached out to us. That’s why when talking about their diaspora communities in the U.S., they always mention the impact that TPS holders have in those countries. I could say that, yes, there have been people that have been politically influential in their countries, but also economically influential, which is something that’s always been true.
TPS holders contribute a lot to El Salvador, to Honduras and Nicaragua, to all these countries through remittances. They have family members here, and family members back home. So they also play that economic role, which is part of the same role that many of these migrant communities have in the US in general. But since a lot of them are business owners, a lot of them are homeowners, they do play that economic role as well. So, yes, it’s clear that these communities are still quite influential in their countries.
Kimberly is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science at UCI. She grew up in a predominantly Latinx community in Southeast LA and is the daughter of two Honduran immigrants. Having seen the obstacles that many immigrants face first-hand has inspired her to pursue a career in immigration law. She hopes to amplify the voices of those in the community during a time where immigration has become one of the most polarizing issues in modern politics. Making sure that underrepresented stories and voices are heard is important in removing the negative stigma around the immigrant community and she hopes to contribute to this change.