Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 105th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Jaime Contreras, the vice president of SEIU 32BJ. Contreras discusses the Trump administration’s latest attack on El Salvadoran immigrants with temporary protected status in the US and how the SEIU will fight back.
Sarah Jaffe: We are talking today about the Trump administration’s latest attack on immigrants. To start off with, tell us a little bit about this latest revocation of temporary protected status (TPS). Who does this apply to? What is the justification the administration is giving for doing this?
Jaime Contreras: First of all, I think it is unfortunate that TPS for close to 200,000 Salvadoran legal workers in the country is going to end by September 2019. It is un-American. It is inhumane. The excuse the administration gave for doing this is, “Well, you know, there hasn’t been an earthquake in El Salvador lately or a natural disaster and you no longer have a civil war,” but the reality is … I have been to El Salvador not too long ago; things for Salvadorans [are still bad], there is still dire poverty in El Salvador. There is gang violence in El Salvador.
Sending 200,000 workers who have done everything right by the law, paying their taxes, contributing to the economy, who have … around another 200,000 US-born children. What is going to happen to those kids and these folks? It is really sending them back to misery, and some of them may even face death when they get back. That, to me, is not the right thing to do. I came here in 1988 during the civil war in El Salvador at the age of 13. My parents brought me here. I had no say in that decision. Since then, I have served in the United States military. I have become a US citizen. I own a house. I work every day. To me, it is offensive as a former military person that this administration has taken this stance with immigrants who are no different than me.
Can you explain a little bit more about what temporary protected status is for people who aren’t familiar with this?
Temporary protected status is given to people who are already in the United States undocumented, fleeing some sort of a natural disaster, a civil war or conflict in their homeland. It is given to those people as a way to protect them to allow them to work legally in the United States, [and] live without fear of deportation. That is what temporary protected status is. It has been given to over 10 countries, including Nicaragua — which was also eliminated, but it is a really small number of 2,500 people — Honduras, Haiti, Sudan and a bunch of other countries who have turmoil in their land. So, those people have temporary protected status and all of those people are about to lose it. The largest recipient of TPS is really Salvadorans.
This administration already eliminated TPS for Haiti and Nicaragua and Sudan. Now this is the fourth country. This goes along with revoking DACA protections. The one thing this administration seems to be keeping its promises on, unfortunately, seems to be taking protections away from immigrants.
Yes. To me, this didn’t come as a surprise. We all heard the rhetoric during the campaign from this president. We knew it was coming. If there is one thing different between the Republicans and the Democrats, it is Republicans say what they are going to do and they do it. Democrats — it is the ever-frustrating part where you say you are going to do something and then you do something opposite. Republicans at least stick to their guns and … do what they said they were going to do. It is unfortunate. A lot of people were hoping it was only going to be rhetoric, but it is not a surprise.
You asked earlier, “What are we going to do and how are we going to get ourselves organized?” SEIU and the rest of the labor movement — along with churches, community organizations, even the business community … the Chamber of Commerce is against eliminating TPS. Obviously, they weren’t heard. Now it is in the hands of Congress. Congress has to act and fix DACA, fix TPS, and allow these people to continue living in the United States as they have been. A lot of these people, like I said, they own homes, some of them are business owners, they have US-born children, they have roots here…. You can’t uproot people who have been here for over two decades just like that. It is just not the American thing to do. So, we are going to be lobbying Congress and demanding they fix this problem once and for all for these people who really should be US citizens by now, if they were allowed the opportunity to do that.
You mentioned that the Democrats have not done what they promised on this front. Do you think that Trump’s really open attacks will help push the Democratic Party to act on this front?
Well, you know, I think the Democratic Party and the Republicans, frankly, have no choice but to act, because there is always the next election. We have elections this year in the midterm and we have elections in 2020. Somebody is going to have to pay the price because of the actions of this administration. It is unfortunate that these people who have, every 18 months for the last 20 or so years, been going to get their background checks done, their fingerprints done…. They have done everything they have been asked to do. These people should have been given the opportunity to become US citizens a long time ago.
But because we have a broken immigration system, this was not done and the only way forward is really for Congress to fix our broken immigration system once and for all. And not only fix it for DACA and TPS recipients, but really fix it for all the 11+ million people here who are undocumented, who are working every day two and three jobs to really make this country what it is, which is a country of immigrants and a country that is successful because of the work of immigrants and other communities.
Tell us a little bit about what your union has been doing in the last year. [SEIU] 32BJ, obviously, has a lot of members who are immigrants and from various places and with various kinds of statuses. Talk a little bit about what the union has done this year, fighting this administration on immigration.
We have been active locally on passing sanctuary cities in jurisdictions where we can, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. We have been helping elect pro-immigrant/pro-worker politicians. We have been lobbying Congress. We have been creating coalitions to help counter-attack the attacks of this administration against immigrants. We are going to continue to do all of those things.
For SEIU, we have 100,000 Salvadorans or more organized in SEIU. Most people estimate that one in five Salvadorans have TPS, which means at least 20,000 of our members will be affected negatively by the actions of this administration. It is incumbent upon us [not only] as SEIU and 32BJ, but as the labor movement, to continue to pressure these politicians to do the right thing.
Is there anything that you can do in terms of job contracts, in the workplace on this front?
We are going to be informing our members throughout the union about what some of the options are. Obviously, we are encouraging all the TPS recipients to renew their TPS. They do have 18 more months after March to continue to work here legally, but they have to renew. A lot of TPS recipients are eligible for political asylum. Some of them could be petitioned by their employer. Some of them could be petitioned by their children, if they have children that are over 18. So, we are going to be finding out all the things that are available currently for this population and help get the word out and help get them connected to people who will responsibly help them get through this phase. Hopefully, a good chunk of those people will be able to adjust their status by doing some of the things.
How can people keep up with you and with the union’s work?
They can always go to our website, which is www.SEIU32BJ.org or they can go to www.SEIU.org. There is a lot of awesome information on those websites about what people can do. Obviously, we can always be available via phone. Our numbers for people to call if they have questions is (202) 387-3211, and there will be more information given to the community as we find out more what this really means.
It is what we do for a living. I wouldn’t have another job. Our community needs as much help as they can get, and we are going to try to give them as much help as we can give them.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.