Julia Wick is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She was previously the editor in chief of LAist.com
Revoking immigration protections on L.A.’s TPS holders could have a dramatic impact on the city’s workforce, communities, and neighborhoods.
LOS ANGELES, CA—Evelyn Hernandez told her husband that even if she dies, she doesn’t want to leave the United States. “I want to get buried here,” she said she told him one day. “I don’t want you to send me to my country.”
Hernandez is originally from El Salvador, but she’s lived in Los Angeles since she emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 at the age of 19. She has been able to live and work legally in the U.S. since 2001 because of her Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, as it is commonly known.
But a week ago the Trump administration announced plans to end TPS for individuals from El Salvador, upending the lives of roughly 200,000 Salvadorans who have been living in this country since at least March 2001, if not substantially longer. These individuals now have eighteen months—until September 9, 2019—to either leave the U.S., or find an alternate means of obtaining legal residency.
Hernandez, who works as a community organizer at Los Angeles’ Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), described herself as “devastated, frustrated, and angry” by the decision—but not defeated. “With all that, I turn it into energy to fight, not just for Evelyn Hernandez but for all of us with Temporary Protected Status.”
A status born of disaster and war
The TPS program was created in 1990 to allow individuals to temporarily remain in the U.S. when conditions in their native country would prevent them from safely returning home, most often due to ongoing armed conflict or natural disasters. TPS was granted to Salvadorans by then-President George W. Bush in 2001, after two major earthquakes a month apart devastated the small Central American nation. The Department of Homeland Security now says that ending TPS is necessary because “the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist.”
But many critics argue that El Salvador, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, remains plagued by instability and violence—the legacy of the crippling civil war that raged from 1980 to 1992. Salvadorans make up the overwhelming majority of TPS holders, but 13 countries around the world were designated for TPS when President Donald Trump took office last January, a list that also included Honduras, Nicaragua, Syria, Haiti, and several African nations.
The future of the TPS program as a whole has been on the chopping block under Trump. TPS holders like Orlando Zepeda, a 51-year-old Los Angeles resident, weren’t surprised by last Monday’s decision. “They had already decided for the other countries, and we were expecting it,” Zepeda told CityLab, referencing the fact that the Department of Homeland Security had announced plans to end TPS for Nicaraguans and Haitians in November. “But when you hear the news for you? It’s devastating.”
Zepeda emigrated from El Salvador in 1984; his wife Lorena is also a TPS holder and the couple have two children, both U.S. citizens.
For TPS holders, the program grants participants a kind of in-between legality: Beneficiaries are not deportable and can obtain work authorization permits, but their status must be renewed every 18 months and TPS offers no path to permanent legal residency. In theory and name, the program is intended to be temporary. In practice, however, it has been far closer to quasi-permanent, allowing Salvadoran beneficiaries like Zepeda and Hernandez to build lives and roots in the U.S. over a period of nearly two decades.
Research has shown that obtaining TPS generated “an increase in quality of life, higher incomes, better jobs, and higher rates of homeownership, among other indicators of integration and well-being” for recipients. “It hasn’t been temporary, especially for the Central American community,” CARECEN executive director Martha Arévalo said. “It has been renewed under Republican and Democratic presidents, and they have a responsibility to solve this problem.”
For Southern California, a potential exodus
If policy-driven paths to legalization don’t emerge before the eighteen-month clock is up, individuals will be expected to depart en masse, leaving the workforce, their families, and communities. Such an exodus would rock cities like Los Angeles, whose greater metropolitan area is home to the largest population of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States. Los Angeles houses approximately 30,415 Salvadoran TPS holders—the second-largest concentration in the nation after Washington, D.C., which is home to approximately 32,360.
“Our communities work in the hospital industry, the hotel industry, the school system,” said Karina Oliva Alvarado, a Chicana/o Studies professor at UCLA and a Salvadoran immigrant. “We are such a part of the fabric of the L.A. economy.”
That’s particularly true in the Westlake and Pico Union neighborhoods, where dozens of restaurants serve Salvadoran food and pupusa carts dot busy intersections. In 2012, city leaders officially designated a section of Vermont Avenue running through Pico-Union as the El Salvador Community Corridor. A year later, a memorial to slain Salvadoran priest Monsignor Oscar Romero was unveiled in Westlake’s bustling MacArthur Park. Romero was killed in 1980, at the dawn of the bloody civil war that led tens of thousands of Salvadorans to emigrate to Los Angeles.
That 12-year conflict “echoed loudly in Los Angeles and transformed the city,” as the L.A. Times explained in a 1992 story. What had once been a trickle of Salvadoran migration “became a flood,”with Southern California serving as the “leading destination” for Salvadorans fleeing the violence and political instability. CARECEN was formed in 1983 to provide legal and social services to the nascent community and has since grown into a nationally prominent Central American rights organization.
“We’re mobilizing,” CARECEN volunteer coordinator Jennifer Marin Esquivel said. Among their urgent needs: hiring ten temporary clerks to help with the TPS renewals. (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has indicated that Salvadoran TPS holders will have to renew their statuses one last time before their status expires next September). “We're expecting that as soon as the renewal dates for El Salvador are released that we will be flooded.”
Tallying the economic impact
It’s important to note how economically entrenched this community is. According to data from Center for Migration Studies, more than a third of Central American TPS holders own their homes, and the real estate site Zillow estimated that Salvadoran TPS holders living in Los Angeles paid between $22.1 million and $32 million in 2017 property taxes. More than 88 percent of Central American TPS holders are in the labor force—a workforce participation rate that’s more than 20 percent higher than that of the U.S. population as a whole.
“The way this looks to us is just devastating,” Andrew Cohen, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 11, which represents hotel and restaurant workers in Los Angeles (including several thousand TPS holders), said. “Part of that is the transnational relationship—their families back in El Salvador, by and large, are depending on the remittances that they are sending as workers up here.”
Remittances account for a staggering 17 percent of El Salvador’s GDP, according to the World Bank, with figures totaling more than $4.5 billion a year. Given that TPS holders make up 16 percent of the total Salvadoran population in the U.S., their impact on remittances to the country is likely substantial. In an interview with NPR, one political scientist estimated that TPS holders may be sending more than $600 million to El Salvador—a sum larger than the official aid given by the U.S. to that country, and equivalent to 2 percent of the country’s GDP.
Practically speaking, the American immigration court system is already so backlogged that deporting L.A.’s more than 30,000 TPS holders immediately after their status expires would be logistically impossible. But even if an official knock on the door is not imminent, a population that has spent almost two decades with quasi-legal status will still be thrust back into the shadows, armed with the knowledge that the government already has their home address.
And when the eighteen-month clock is up, TPS recipients will immediately lose their ability to work legally in the United States. “They essentially go back to the underground economy, where they’re working off the books,” Cohen said.
“Right now, we’re getting a lot of calls from people who are very fearful,” said Valeria De Gonzalez, an immigration lawyer at Hadsell Stormer & Renick, a firm that represents approximately 70 restaurant and hotel workers with TPS. According to De Gonzalez, employees like the ones she represents through Unite Here Local 11’s legal fund are typically asked about their work permits a few months before they are set to expire. “Every employer is different but they basically require the employee to prove that they have a new valid work permit for the upcoming TPS season. We expect that to be the same.” Employers who are not in compliance with federal immigration law risk penalties and fees.
TPS holders who remain in the U.S. after their status expires will be at a steep disadvantage as they seek continued employment. “Undocumented workers are given worse wages, they’re victims of wage theft and other forms of abuse much more often, their working conditions are more dangerous, they encounter sexual harassment and abuse more often.” Cohen said. “It’s because they’re relegated to this space of being unable to speak up.”
The children of TPS
Salvadoran TPS holders are also the parents of an estimated 192,700 American-born children, a contingent of young American citizens now plunged into fear and uncertainty. The U.S.-citizen children of TPS holders living in cities like Los Angeles face the possibilities of potentially being separated from a parent, or forced relocation to a country that many have never even visited.
Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, went so far as to issue a statement last week denouncing the TPS decision and reaffirming their commitment to their many immigrant students. According to LAUSD, the announcement has “generated significant anxiety and confusion among some students, families and employees.”
“We can't just talk about DACA or TPS separately. It’s all intermeshed. All our community struggles are intermeshed,” Ester Hernández, a California State University, Los Angeles Chicano/Latino Studies professor who emigrated from El Salvador as a child, told CityLab. “This is something that is a time bomb for the educational system in California.”
If parents are placed in immigration detention or deported, the underage children of TPS holders could theoretically end up entangled in the foster care system, an outcome that would be not just deeply traumatic for the children involved but also financially burdensome for the state. However, according to Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services spokesperson Juana Aguilera, DCFS involvement in immigration cases is still quite rare. “Most of the time, parents already have family [in place] and they leave children with those family members,” Aguilera said.
Orlando Zepeda has been having conversations with his 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. Neither of his two U.S.-born children have ever been to El Salvador.
“I say to them nothing bad is going to happen. When the time comes we will see what we have to do.”
Because one of Evelyn Hernandez’s U.S. citizen children is 21, she will be able to file a family petition that will hopefully allow her to establish legal residency after her TPS expires. “We are here together and we are not giving up that easy.” she said. “We are fighters.”