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‘Doing Essential Work Under a Cloud of Fear…’

May 1, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than 130,000 workers deemed “essential” during the COVID-19 epidemic are facing the specter of deportation—and, with a federal court decision looming on whether the Trump administration can terminate their right to stay in the country, are calling on Congress to give them protection and a path to citizenship.

Working families are feeling “trapped in a basement without being able to see any light” during the pandemic as the Trump administration continues its push to deport TPS holders.  

Trump began trying in late 2017 to revoke the “temporary protected status” (TPS) that has allowed people from six countries to stay in the U.S. and work legally because of civil war or natural disasters in their native lands. The administration claimed that those countries—El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan—were safe enough for people to go back to. In October 2018, a federal judge in California issued an injunction blocking the revocations. The White House appealed that ruling immediately, and a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “could come at any moment,” Douglas Rivlin of America’s Voice said on a press conference organized by immigrant advocates Apr. 30.

A ruling ending TPS would expose more than 400,000 people to deportation—or, for their U.S.-born children, to having their parents deported. Rivlin said there are indications the Department of Homeland Security would be “aggressive” about deporting them.

“For now, we are here, but we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Crisanto Andrade, a Salvadoran father of five who works for the Nassau County Parks Department. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, he described waiting for the court decision as like being “trapped in a basement without being able to see any light.” 

In a report published Apr. 14, the centrist-Democrat Center for American Progress estimated that more than 130,000 TPS holders are “essential critical infrastructure workers,” in fields such as health care, food, manufacturing, and transportation needed keep the nation running during the epidemic. About half were in California, Texas, and Florida, with 12,500 in New York and 7,500 in New Jersey.

The report said about 76,000 worked in food-related occupations, roughly half of those in grocery stores or restaurants, and 11,600 in health care, including 2,100 in New York. City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office has estimated that more than half of “frontline” workers in New York City are low-income immigrants, said Anu Joshi, vice president of policy for the New York Immigration Coalition.

 “I am the only one in the family who is able to work,” said Bishnu H, a 44-year-old Nepali immigrant who works delivering food in Manhattan, speaking through an interpreter. “We are surviving because of TPS.” He said he has to work to support his wife, sister, and two young children in Nepal.

“People like me can’t afford to stay home, because our families depend on our income and the community depends on our services,” said Andrade, who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. His 23-year-old son also lives here, he explained, but his wife and four daughters—three in their twenties, the youngest 10—live in El Salvador, and he is paying college tuition for two of them.

“They are doing this essential work under a cloud of fear caused by their immigration status,” said Joshi.

Immigration advocates are calling on Congress to extend TPS work permits for two years and create a pathway to citizenship for holders. And the next economic stimulus package, said Make the Road New York organizer Eliana Fernandez, should include aid for “all families, regardless of status.”

“Estamos trabajando y pagamos los impuestos,” (we’re working, and we pay taxes), Andrade said.

Ramos v. Nielsen, the lawsuit to halt Trump’s termination of TPS status for Salvadorans, Sudanese, Nicaraguans, and Haitians was filed in March 2018 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Crista Ramos, the 14-year-old daughter of a Salvadoran TPS holder, was lead plaintiff, and the others included members of UNITE HERE and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Kirstjen Nielsen, then Secretary of Homeland Security, was the defendant. 

In October 2018, federal District Judge Edward Chen barred the Trump administration from proceeding with deportations until the case was resolved, holding that TPS holders and their children would “indisputably suffer irreparable harm and great hardship.” He said that many had lived, worked, and raised families in the United States for more than a decade. Those with U.S.-born children, he wrote, might be “faced with the Hobson’s choice of bringing their children with them (and tearing them away from the only country and community they have known) or splitting their families apart.” 

Judge Chen also said that the plaintiffs had presented a substantial record supporting their claim that the Acting Secretary or Secretary of DHS had illegally changed the regulations “without any explanation or justification,” and that there were “serious questions” about whether their actions were taken under pressure from the White House “and based on animus against non-white, non-European immigrants in violation of Equal Protection guaranteed by the Constitution.”

A separate suit covering Hondurans and Nepalis was filed in February 2019, with Honduran IUPAT member Donaldo Posadas was one plaintiff. The Department of Homeland Security has agreed to extend TPS status until Jan. 4, 2021 while the cases are pending.

If the Ninth Circuit overrules Judge Chen, “that January 2021 date may no longer exist,” said Joshi.

The coronavirus epidemic makes preserving TPS more crucial, lawyer Ahilan Arulanantham argued in an Apr. 15 letter to the Ninth Circuit. “Because TPS holders constitute significant portions of the essential work force in the limited businesses still operating during the pandemic, the district court’s finding has particular force during this difficult moment in our nation’s history,” he wrote.

May 1, 2020

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