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Rights groups fight to keep protections for immigrants

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

People held signs at the Most Holy Redeemer Church Jan. 11 after the Trump administration announced it would end temporary protected status for Salvadorans.

By Globe Staff 

As the president and Congress gear up for a fight over immigration, civil rights groups and others are coming to the aid of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who face deportation but largely have been omitted from recent policy discussions.

Immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Sudan — most of whom have lived for decades in the United States with temporary protected status because sending them home would be too dangerous — have been told over the last four months that they must prepare to leave the country.

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And as President Trump tries to fulfill his campaign promise of reengineering the country’s immigration system, some say ending protections for those with TPS is the path of least resistance.

“Immigration reform is very complicated. This is easy,” said Philip Kasinitz, professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Kasinitz said President Trump is going after “low-hanging fruit” by ending TPS.

The reason these “are easy things for the administration to do,” said Rachel Rosenbloom, a Northeastern University law professor who specializes in immigration policy, is “they don’t require Congress.”

Determining which countries’ citizens qualify for TPS is the province of the executive branch, unlike other parts of the immigration system that require congressional action.

But people are fighting to save the program. The NAACP sued the Department of Homeland Security over its decision to rescind temporary protected status for Haitian immigrants. And the chief justice of Massachusetts’ highest court called for an increase in civil legal aid for the poor, in part to help thousands of immigrants facing deportation.

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For immigrants wondering what their future holds, it has been a confusing time with each day — sometimes each hour — bringing moments of hope or tremendous anxiety.

Take the week of Jan. 7, for example:

Monday: The administration terminated TPS for Salvadorans. Tuesday: A bipartisan group of senators and Trump reached a tentative deal on several key immigration issues, and a federal judge in San Francisco temporarily blocked Trump’s plan to end protection for some immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Wednesday: Immigration agents descended on 7-Eleven convenience stores nationwide, arresting workers in the country illegally. Thursday: A meeting that carried high hopes that a deal on some immigration policies could be reached ended in controversy — and without consensus — after the president reportedly referred to some majority-black nations as “shitholes.”

“One day you’re hearing something; the next day, something else,” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute, a nonprofit that helps Haitian immigrants transition to life in the United States. “It’s too much. We don’t know where we stand.”

Immigrants and advocates say one thing is clear to them: Trump’s actions appear to be racially motivated.

“There is a gigantic element of racism in the policies they have been implementing against people of color,” Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant advocacy group based in East Boston, told an overflow crowd at Boston City Hall recently during a rally protesting the termination of TPS for Salvadorans.

“People love to say this is a country of immigrants, but look at who we are. We’re brown. We’re black. We’re not the white immigrant who came from Europe years ago.”

Behind Montes, a native of Honduras, stood a bevy of immigrants, elected officials, and activists who urged the crowd to help keep families together. Among them was Elmer Vivas Portillo, 19, a student at Harvard University whose mother and several uncles are TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador.

Portillo said he can’t see a future where his mother returns to El Salvador without him, his brother, or father, who became a US citizen this year.

“You’re like ‘don’t panic,’ but that’s just very difficult,” he said. The administration’s decision is “breaking families apart,” he said, “just because you want to appease a certain audience.”

More than 240,000 Salvadorans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans in the United States (about 11,000 in Massachusetts) benefit from temporary protected status, according to state and federal authorities. The designations for these countries — given in 2001, 2010, and 1999, respectively — are set to expire in 12 to 18 months, depending on the country, giving people time to get their affairs in order or Congress to act.

In November, nearly 60,000 Hondurans were told “it is possible” the country will lose its designation in six months. And the deadline to determine if Syrians keep TPS comes this week.

Temporary protected status is a humanitarian program that gives refuge to immigrants in the United States whose countries have been deemed too perilous to return to because of natural disaster or armed conflicts.

It is not a path to permanent residency, but it authorizes immigrants without criminal records to work and protects them from deportation, even if they were previously in the country illegally. Twenty-two countries, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Rwanda, have received a TPS designation at some point. A country’s designation lasts six to 18 months and is renewed at the discretion of the executive branch.

In October, about 317,000 immigrants from 10 countries benefited from the humanitarian program and were expected to reregister, with more than half coming from El Salvador, according to the Federal Register.

“The problem ultimately is in the word temporary, which assumes these crises are going to fix themselves,” said Kasinitz. “And in some cases that happens. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, there were some Kuwaitis here who said, ‘We can’t go back. You’re about to go to war,’ so they got TPS and when the war was done they could go back.”

Still, as administration after administration has tried unsuccessfully to overhaul the country’s immigration system, TPS became a stopgap in some cases.

“It’s not the right use of TPS,” said Rosenbloom.

Immigrants with TPS from El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua have been here for many years.

“This allowed many people who now identify as Americans to participate in the life of our country. Buy a home. Find work. Start a business. Have children. Send those kids to college. Become permanent fixtures of our communities and not just in Boston but in cities and towns across the country,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

“We are deeply concerned that the basis for terminating TPS is discrimination against communities of color,” he said.

The longer the nation goes without immigration reform, the system becomes more broken and the issue becomes harder to tackle, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

It has been almost 30 years since Congress last overhauled the nation’s immigration system, and that was the most sweeping revision of immigration laws in almost seven decades. Pierce mentioned the predicament of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

“Congress has been given this very politically sympathetic group, and they still can’t reach a consensus,” she said. “How in the world are they going to reform the entire immigration system?”


Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.