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Advocates say the fight is not over for immigrants in Mass. with temporary protected status

Director Patricia Montes of Centro Presente helped deliver food packages in East Boston in April to needy immigrant families.
Director Patricia Montes of Centro Presente helped deliver food packages in East Boston in April to needy immigrant families.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Massachusetts advocacy groups said they are disappointed, but not defeated, following a ruling by a federal appeals court that allows the Trump administration to move forward with ending protections for some immigrants.

On Monday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government can move forward with ending temporary protected status — a humanitarian designation that grants safe haven to citizens of countries destabilized by war or environmental disasters — for hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the United States.

But legal efforts to preserve TPS are ongoing and numerous, including a case before a federal judge in Massachusetts that challenges the Trump administration on behalf of immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras. The organizations involved say they will keep fighting for the more than 12,000 TPS holders who have made Massachusetts home.

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“The dust hasn’t settled,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which brought the Massachusetts lawsuit. “It’s great that we have our case here in Boston still pending, because it provides another opportunity for legal assessment and for advocacy on behalf of the immigrant community.”

Temporary protected status was created as a humanitarian designation in 1990, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. It is conferred upon a country for six to 18 months at a time, during which citizens of that country who have fled to the United States may apply to remain legally. Many TPS holders have remained for years following the initial disasters that forced them from their home countries. Many also have US-born children.

“We’re talking about families that have been living and working in the US for the past 10 years,” said Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, one of the organizations named as a plaintiff in the Boston case. “They are part of the fabric of this society.”

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In 2016, there were more than 400,000 TPS holders hailing from 10 countries. Of those, 12,326 lived in Massachusetts, where the vast majority of immigrants with humanitarian status are from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nepal — all among those whose status the federal government has sought to end. Designations for Nicaragua and Sudan also hang in the balance.

The Trump administration has argued that the danger facing people who return to those countries has passed and that TPS was never meant to confer lifelong legal residency. The immigrants and advocacy groups that have mobilized nationwide to block the administration’s efforts disagree. Many also argue that efforts to end the designation are rooted in racism, citing President Trump’s comments deriding immigrants from several nonwhite countries.

Monday’s ruling dealt a blow to that movement. Issued in the case Ramos v. Nielsen, the 2-1 decision by Ninth Circuit judges reversed a preliminary injunction put in place by a lower court that for a short while safeguarded the designation for immigrants from countries named in the suit. Judges also said arguments that racism is at the root of the government’s stance on TPS are unlikely to hold up in further court proceedings.

Since TPS is not a pathway to citizenship, revocation would mean recipients from those countries would be forced to leave the United States on their own or risk deportation.

“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” Kenny Azi, a 29-year-old TPS recipient who lives in Brockton, said Thursday. Azi arrived in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated his native Haiti. He described receiving legal status through TPS as “a breath of fresh air” that allowed him to enroll in university courses and eventually build a successful marketing firm.

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“It’s really disappointing when you do all this, and then there’s flip-flopping to your legal status," Azi said. “You feel like you don’t have stability. You feel like your days are counted, like you have an expiration date in this country.”

Following the Ninth Circuit ruling, protected status could end for most of the affected countries as soon as March 2021 — a date that could be delayed by appeals and additional temporary injunctions, said Espinoza-Madrigal of Lawyers for Civil Rights. He also said that legal challenges will continue, even if it means the case must be taken to the Supreme Court.

The Massachusetts suit, Centro Presente v. Trump, is pending before Judge Denise Casper in US District Court in Boston. The case was put on hold pending the Ramos decision, but that Ninth Circuit ruling is not binding for the Massachusetts court.

The plaintiffs in Centro Presente v. Trump, 14 immigrants with TPS status and the immigrant advocacy organizations Centro Presente and Haitian-Americans United, allege the Trump administration ignored key factors when making its decision to rescind TPS and was motivated by racism. The case could result in another temporary or permanent injunction denying the government the ability to enforce revocation.

Espinoza-Madrigal said the plaintiffs are not dissuaded by the Ninth Circuit ruling, and he is hopeful that the considerable amount of time his team has had to prepare the case will give them an advantage the Ramos lawyers lacked.

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For Massachusetts immigrant communities waiting for an answer, the battle comes at an already difficult time.

“We are ready to continue to fight. But the energy that we will spend on that fight will be energy that we could have put toward the community fight with COVID-19,” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute and a member of the Massachusetts Immigrant Collaborative.

Though hard-hit by the public health and economic consequences of the pandemic, immigrants have been crucial to Massachusetts' COVID-19 response, with 5,600 TPS holders performing essential jobs.

Even if legal challenges ultimately prove successful, immigrants with TPS status would probably be left in limbo for months, with the fate of their businesses, homes, and families hanging in the balance.

“For me, [TPS] is my life,” said Patricia Carbajal, 40, of Revere, a TPS holder and one of the plaintiffs in Centro Presente v. Trump.

After years of saving and working in construction, Carbajal, who moved from Honduras at age 18, was eager to buy a house and a dog for her 6-year-old daughter. Now, with her immigration status uncertain, the single mother said she is unsure whether she should keep house-hunting in the state she now considers home.

“It makes me sad that hate is taking over this beautiful country,” Carbajal said. “I don’t understand when the president says he wants to look out for Americans, because my daughter is American, too."

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Though Carbajal has not broached the subject of her immigration status with her daughter, she has shown her pictures of Honduras and talked about living there. Carbajal said her child’s response is always the same: “‘I don’t want to live in Honduras,’ she goes. ‘My country is Boston.’”


Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.