Barry Chin/Globe Staff
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice sued the Trump administration Thursday, alleging the federal government is discriminating against immigrants of color by ending temporary protections that allowed tens of thousands of citizens from Haiti and El Salvador to remain legally in the United States after natural disasters in their homelands.
In the lawsuit filed in US District Court in Massachusetts, the civil rights organization argues that ending Temporary Protected Status for Haiti and El Salvador is not only unconstitutional but also “was impermissibly infected by invidious discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and/or national origin and therefore cannot stand.”
The organization points to President Trump’s history of making disparaging remarks about immigrants of color as evidence that the administration’s governing philosophy is grounded in bigotry.
“Today we are drawing a line in the sand and saying government policy cannot be based on bias and discrimination,” said Oren M. Sellstrom, the litigation director for the Lawyers’ Committee, during a conference call with reporters. “Like scores of other TPS beneficiaries from across the country, our clients have called America home for years now. The Trump administration wants to round them up and tear families apart.”
Katie Tichacek, spokeswoman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees TPS as part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
As Trump has sought to limit immigration, both legal and illegal, advocates and immigrants themselves have turned to the courts for relief — with some success.
Federal judges in Richmond and San Francisco have said the president’s ban on citizens from some Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is discriminatory, and the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case this spring. Federal judges have temporarily blocked Trump’s plan to end protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, or DACA. Last month, the NAACP sued the Department of Justice for rescinding TPS for Haitian immigrants, and a separate suit was filed in New York on Thursday on behalf of a subset of TPS beneficiaries who argue they should qualify for legal permanent residence.
And just last week in Boston, a federal judge demanded immigration authorities explain why a Guatemalan mother of two was arrested and jailed for nearly a month after going to a government office to apply for legal residency.
Temporary Protected Status is another front in that legal fight. Starting last fall, the Trump administration lifted the protective status for immigrants from four countries — Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Sudan — in as many months. Within the next 12 to 18 months, immigrants from these countries must leave the country or face deportation.
More than 240,000 Salvadorans and Haitians in the United States (about 11,000 in Massachusetts) benefit from TPS, according to state and federal authorities. The status 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. The designations for El Salvador and Haiti — given in 2001 and 2010 respectively after catastrophic earthquakes crippled both nations — are now set to expire in about 18 months.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, which represents Lawrence and Chelsea in federal lawsuits challenging the administration’s effort to restrict federal funding to sanctuary cities, said the TPS suit asks the courts to preserve “the integrity of our clients’ legal rights and their dignity in the face of an adverse policy decision made by the Trump administration.”
The lawsuit names Trump, the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke as defendants.
It was filed on behalf of Centro Presente, an immigrant advocacy group based in East Boston, and eight immigrants, some of whom own homes and businesses. Others are college students or recent college graduates, while others work as clerks or custodians in government buildings. Most are parents of children born in the United States.
“I feel attacked. I feel discriminated against because I know I contribute to the nation’s economy and the president doesn’t respect or value my contributions,” Juan Carlos Vidal, 35, who lives in Revere and co-owns four restaurants in the state, said in Spanish during a telephone press conference with reporters.
The Salvadoran native has been a TPS beneficiary since 2001, and his 5- and 7-year-old children were both born in the United States. “I am worried and participating in this lawsuit because I worry about my businesses. I worry about my family.”
The suit argues that terminating TPS for Salvadorans and Haitians “harkens back to some of the darkest and most discredited chapters in US history.”
But a statement from the Department of Homeland Security announcing the decision to revoke TPS for Haiti said, “those extraordinary but temporary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake no longer exist.” A similar statement was made when the humanitarian designation for El Salvador was revoked.
Though the program is designed to be temporary, many immigrants with TPS from El Salvador have been here for decades.
“Why is it that 16 years later someone would be in our country under something called, ‘Temporary Protected Status’? It proves that something is wrong with our immigration system,” US Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York, said during a Feb. 6 White House roundtable, according to a transcript.
Immigration advocates heavily criticized the decision to rescind TPS for Haiti and El Salvador, arguing that neither country has fully rebounded from the natural disasters that triggered the necessity for the designation. And the suit argues there were ripple effects from the initial catastrophes that have worsened conditions on the ground, including a deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti and extreme gang violence and corruption in El Salvador.
Will Arias, a Salvadoran immigrant with TPS since 2001 who owns a home in Everett, said in Spanish that he worries most about his children. “Children are the principal targets of gangs in El Salvador,” he said. “I fear that they will become the victims of gang violence.”
His sons, 2 and 16, were born in the United States and the oldest dreams of going to college and has nightmares of his family being separated.
“Almost on a daily basis, my eldest son, who is in the 11th grade, asks questions about what will happen to us now,” said Arias, a custodian at the John Adams Courthouse where the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sits in Boston. “He wonders if he will have to come to El Salvador with us or if the family will be separated and torn apart.”
The uncertainty, he said, brings his wife to tears almost daily.
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