As a bartender working on the freewheeling Las Vegas strip, Nery Martinez has always played by the rules. But more than two decades after risking everything to migrate to the U.S. from El Salvador, his future in a city that helped fuel Donald Trump’s fortune now hangs in legal jeopardy.
“It’s like you’re giving food to your kids, and then once they’re about to eat it, you take it [away]. That’s how I feel right now,” Martinez says. “They gave me a piece of bread, and now they take it back again.”
After fleeing violence and chaos in El Salvador in the 1990s, he scraped by as an undocumented worker for a while. Under the George W. Bush administration, he qualified for a special humanitarian program known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Finally, he was able to obtain proper work papers, got a union job with UNITE HERE, and started a new family, with his wife, also a TPS holder, and two US-born children.
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But the former casino mogul in the White House has turned Martinez’s family into a poker chip in Washington’s border politics: Last year, Trump moved to cancel an array of humanitarian relief programs covering hundreds of thousands of immigrants nationwide. They included TPS relief for six countries — El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan — along with the Obama-era reprieve for youth, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and a program for migrants from post-civil war Liberia, Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED). By refusing to extend the programs, the Trump administration put the programs on track to lapse within months.
But public pressure may be having an impact: With two legal challenges pending, in recent months, the government offered brief extensions to the six TPS countries amid exploding public protests since last fall, and just a few weeks ago, an extension for DED. Yet the White House continues to insist that the relief is no longer warranted, because the immigrants’ homelands are now supposedly safe for return, which means they will automatically lose legal status.
Various special humanitarian designations have been granted by immigration authorities since the 1990s. TPS is based on humanitarian conditions, usually applied in the aftermath of a major disaster, such as an earthquake or civil conflict, and is periodically renewed for up to 18 months at a time. DACA has been a major boost for previously undocumented youth, enabling hundreds of thousands to work and attend college legally. As a temporary reprieve, DACA was intended as an administrative stopgap, in lieu of the DREAM Act, a long-stalled bill intended to give permanent legal status to undocumented students and other youth — but with Trump’s election and no hope for reform in sight, the program is now set to expire and plunge them back into legal limbo. In contrast to the demonic picture Trump paints of marauding border caravans, these migrants are firmly planted on U.S. soil, having typically lived over a decade in the US, often in mixed-status families with citizens and green card holders. Dreamers (would-be beneficiaries of the DREAM Act) have arrived in the U.S. at the average age of 8, and now form a major part of the rising generation of college graduates and young professionals. And while they cannot vote, DACA, DED and TPS holders bring fresh urgency to a gridlocked immigration policy debate.
While the two lawsuits that resulted in the temporary blocking of Trump’s orders proceed through litigation, a coalition of labor and civil rights groups are betting on a legislative proposal, known as the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which has garnered bipartisan support. The bill would directly provide more than 2 million people with something that their “temporary” designations never afforded them — the security of permanence in the country where they have collectively made their home. Most beneficiaries of the bill would be up to 2.1 million Dreamers (named after an earlier bill aimed at legalizing their status) who came as young children and have become eligible for relief under the Obama-era DACA program. Additionally, the legislation could also make about 460,000 TPS and DED holders eligible for permanent legal status.
Denouncing Trump’s brutal anti-immigrant rhetoric, even toward those granted humanitarian relief, Working Families United (a labor coalition including the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, UNITE HERE, Teamsters and many other unions) recently urged Congress to pass the bill highlighting not just their coworkers’ humanitarian needs, but also underscoring the vital role they play for their coworkers and communities, as well as the wholesale degradation of labor rights resulting from migrant labor exploitation: “When TPS holders and Dreamers are at risk, all workers are more vulnerable to employer abuses. However, when workers, including TPS holders and Dreamers, have legal status and rights, all workplaces benefit from higher wages, safer workplaces, and the right and ability to form and join a union.”
As a practical reform, the bill is a relatively light lift. While refugees and asylum seekers may present complex legal and regulatory challenges, the Dream and Promise Act would simply maintain protections already in place for more than 2 million people now living as Americans in all but legal status, while giving them real access to citizenship — something that past immigration reform bills never achieved. In a statement to Truthout, Neidi Dominguez, national strategic campaign coordinator for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and co-chair of Working Families United, said the value of TPS for labor cannot be underestimated.
“Thirty percent of TPS holders work in construction,” Dominguez stated. “If you’ve driven over a bridge on the East Coast chances are you’ve benefited from the work of union workers with TPS.”
According to a 2017 Center for American Progress survey of Honduran and Salvadoran TPS holders, those who were able to work legally thanks to TPS had “significantly high levels of labor force participation” compared to the rest of the population. On average, they earned about $2,900 per month; the vast majority pay income taxes. Eighty percent saw better job prospects as a result of TPS. Many attended college, organized their workplaces, or even launched their own businesses, helping create jobs for their communities. In contrast to stereotypes of immigrants as socially disengaged, nearly 30 percent said they “volunteered in civic organizations, committees, or community groups” during the previous year. About one-fifth reported community activities like helping out at their children’s school or giving blood.
Beyond U.S. borders, TPS immigrants’ remittances fueled a huge global flow of capital, which currently sustains about 15 percent of total GDP for El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti. But their greatest social contribution goes beyond their pay-stubs: About 620,000 people lived together with TPS-holder family members, including an estimated 448,000 U.S. citizens and 279,000 children under the age of 18. Those households could face economic destitution, social destabilization and trauma as deportation splits family members apart.
Among DACA recipients, today almost all are either in school or working. Qualifying for DACA status is associated with an 80 percent rise in average hourly earnings. Today, Dreamer households collectively hold about $66 billion of the country’s spending power.
It’s unclear how Trump would respond to the latest congressional proposal, but if the programs do expire in the coming months, despite the pretext of their home countries being “safe” for return, deportation would destroy multiple generations, removing a chief source of remittance income, and perhaps endanger lives, if people face persecution or violence in their homelands.
The issue has a particular poignancy for the Nepalese diaspora. A 2015 earthquake devastated the country’s already-tattered infrastructure, while also increasing pressure to migrate to escape endemic poverty and corruption.
The calamity cast 56-year-old Keshav Raj Bhattarai to the U.S., where his son was finishing a medical fellowship. Bhattarai has since begun reassembling his life, settling in a new home in California with his wife and working his way up to assistant manager at a gas station. Bhattarai’s other preoccupation today is his court challenge to the Trump administration, as the lead plaintiff in the suit opposing Nepal and Honduras’s TPS cancellations. His struggle was recently vindicated with a federal court ruling blocking the measure, but he and hundreds of thousands of other migrants are running out of patience with living in a constant state of “temporary.”
In a statement announcing the ruling, Bhattarai, a survivor of environmental trauma and father of a doctor, stressed the need for a permanent remedy: “I feel like I’ve been sick and this agreement is a few drops of medicine…. And it gives us all some breathing room to call on Congress to give us what we really need: permanent protection for TPS.”
For Martinez, facing another approaching deadline, the opportunity to stay for good could not come fast enough. “It’s a bit [of] hope for us to not be in the shadows and waiting [to find out what will happen to us], every night and every day…. We have nightmares, we don’t have a future, we don’t have a vision, because we don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
It’s not just his papers that are at stake. Martinez fears “a break in the future” of his children. At home, he says, he struggles to conceal his worry, to shield them from the turmoil: “They are citizen kids. Their lives are gonna change too, because I gotta be here all the time, to support them to be a better person.” Trump has put an arbitrary deadline on the lives of TPS holders, but Martinez’s responsibility to his American family doesn’t have an expiration date. This country, regardless of what the government decrees, is the only place where he can imagine a future for his family.