We cannot unsee the image of Óscar and Valeria Martínez’s lifeless bodies in the riverbank of the Rio Grande, facedown, locked in embrace. Their image put a face to the plight of asylum-seekers who are fleeing an ecology of abuse and criminal impunity in Central America. Their deaths reminded Americans of the human cost of having an administration that has criminalized asylum-seekers and a partisan Congress that has been unwilling to find a legislative solution for this humanitarian crisis.
Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is exactly the type of legislative solution that could have saved the lives of Óscar and Valeria. In 1990, the U.S. Congress created TPS for immigrants who are unable to return to their countries due to natural disasters, armed conflict or other extreme circumstances. George H. W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which included TPS, into law with bipartisan support. Almost three decades later, TPS has proven to be a remarkably successful program. Currently, around 320,000 people have TPS; on average, they have been living in the U.S. for 19 years. TPS recipients have a very high employment rate. They add invaluable skills to critical U.S. industries, and many even employ American citizens. For instance, the construction skills of TPS recipients are highly valuable at a time when our national infrastructure needs repair. In addition to contributing to the U.S. economy and paying taxes, TPS recipients are raising 275,000 American-born children, many of whom are Valeria’s age. Thus, their integral role in the United States goes beyond simply strengthening the economy — it also includes raising the next generation of productive workers.
Alas, on Jan. 8, 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the discontinuation of TPS. Since then, there have been ongoing lawsuits against the Trump administration and civic mobilization on local and national levels. In February 2019, I accompanied a Salvadoran delegation from San Francisco to Washington D.C., where my community members shared heartfelt testimonies with Congress on how much the U.S. means to them. After months of tireless advocacy, now we have three bills in Congress that, if passed, would offer protection for TPS and DACA recipients. The fate of more than a quarter of a million American children and their parents hangs in the balance as the status of TPS-designated countries expires this year.
If legislation is not passed, my friends and community members will be ripped from their American children and sent back to a country so unstable that people, such as Óscar, are taking the risk to cross the Rio Grande in pursuit of a life unburdened by violence. What drove Óscar to escape El Salvador represents a much darker reality: the collapse of the state as a political institution in many parts of Central America, partially caused by misguided U.S. policies in that region. To grant individuals like Óscar a new start in life is not a privilege, but instead an act of humanitarian urgency. Throughout his campaign, Trump promised voters to primarily target undocumented immigrants with a criminal history and show “a lot of heart” to everyone else. Separating 275,000 American-born children from their families is callous and, ultimately, self-defeating. Contrary to the president’s zero-sum game mentality with racism at its core, the success of TPS is an American success story.
If TPS is permanently canceled, it would not be hard to imagine the outcome. TPS recipients would have to leave behind their teenagers to fend for themselves and take their younger children to countries like El Salvador and Honduras where, by virtue of being from the United States, they will be targeted for extortion. We will read reports of children who are U.S. citizens being kidnapped or forced into gang networks in Central America, and many of us will wonder why this atrocity has been allowed to continue. Separating thousands of American-born children, right before our eyes, would be the administration’s most heartless racism.
As an immigration rights advocate at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley, I have met and interviewed dozens of asylum-seekers like Óscar. I know the type of violence that drives them to desperately swim across the Rio Grande. The portraits of these asylum-seekers are vast and range from unaccompanied minors who refused to join gangs even after they had their ears sliced off, to young women who refused to end up in another unmarked mass grave after they were gang raped in a coffee field, and to gay men and women who refused to wait their turn after their partners’ bodies were found inside trash bags. I have a hard time breathing when I think TPS recipients might be deported to Central America this fall. Think about the pain these families are in now. Please act!
If masses of people contact their senators across the country to urge them to pass legislation to protect TPS holders and their 275,000 American-born children with a path to permanent residency, perhaps we can keep some of these families together.
Aria Fani is an immigration rights advocate at East Bay Sanctuary Covenant and has a doctorate in near eastern studies from UC Berkeley.