More than half a year into the Biden administration, the future of a decades-old U.S. humanitarian program — and the fate of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who rely on it — remains murky, sowing confusion and anxiety for beneficiaries.
Granted to nationals of certain countries ravaged by armed conflict or natural disasters, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) allows recipients to live and work in the United States for a limited period of time.
The administration of former president Donald Trump sought to end temporary protections for nationals of several countries, sparking court challenges and creating doubts about the future of the program, which Congress established in 1990.
The Biden administration has used executive authority to extend TPS and remove the immediate threat of deportations. But despite the current administration's "friendly posture" toward TPS, questions linger about the long-term functionality of the program as mediation stemming from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union continues, according to Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
"We don't know what exactly is being negotiated, what would a settlement look like," Gelatt told VOA. "Would it restore TPS for all of these countries or for some of these countries?"
While the Trump administration stressed the "temporary" component of TPS, immigrant advocates are pressing the Biden administration to shield beneficiaries for as long as possible and expand the program.
"There is an active campaign to persuade the Biden-Harris administration to grant a brand new TPS designation for people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua who are already residing in the U.S.," said Oscar Chacon, executive director of advocacy group Alianza Americas, in an email to VOA. "Such a decision would keep currently protected individuals protected, but it would also extend protection to additional people."
Chacon added that while most TPS recipients' immigration status is secure for now, the disruptions have affected the ability of some to renew work permits and secure other documents.
"Employers may deny employment or even terminate employment because of it. Another area of challenges relates to state [identification] or driver's licenses. Motor vehicles agencies may deny [issuing identifications] or driver's licenses due to the inability to produce employment authorization documents showing valid dates," Chacon said.
Currently 12 countries have TPS designations: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.
The circumstances that bring beneficiaries to the United States are as varied as the countries they depart.
Yanira Arias fled gender violence and near-constant harassment in El Salvador, arriving in New York in 2000 at age 27.
"It was not just a struggle to meet my needs but also making sure that I arrived safe and alive at home [every day]. So, all that together was a lot of stress, and I made the decision to leave the country," she told VOA.
A year later, El Salvador was devastated by powerful earthquakes that left more than a thousand people dead and more than a million homeless. The cost of rebuilding was estimated at $2.8 billion.
The disaster prompted the U.S. government to designate El Salvador for TPS. Arias told VOA she was initially skeptical about it.
"I didn't know about TPS. I was really unsure if I should do it. I had so many questions, but at the same time, I was also anxious because I knew I didn't have a [legal] status, and I was already aware of what it meant to be someone without a status in the United States, and the risk behind being undocumented," she said.
Eventually she applied and was granted protection, allowing her to work for nonprofit groups that advocate for Latina women, AIDS sufferers and immigrant communities.
TPS has been repeatedly renewed for nationals of El Salvador and other countries, typically at 18-month intervals. Although grateful for the program, Arias says long-term planning is impossible for her.
"I cannot invest in something permanent. …The uncertainty of: what if this year, this is the last time I'm going to have an 18-month increment approved? What am I going to do?" she said. "I already fled El Salvador because I was almost killed. So then, going back to that is a very frightening world."
Permanent residency sought
October promises to be a pivotal month for TPS holders, as court-ordered extensions of protections will expire. Immigrant advocates hope negotiations with the Biden administration will yield agreements protecting those whose status was threatened during the Trump administration.
Amid the uncertainty, Chacon, Arias and others are urging U.S. lawmakers to amend TPS to make long-term recipients eligible for permanent legal residency in the United States.
"We are [trying] to explain to members of Congress that regardless of having our extensions — and yes, we are not being served with an order of deportation — it is very hard to live this way," Arias said.
Senate Democrats are pushing to provide legal status to potentially millions of undocumented immigrants, attempting to include the measure in an emerging budget proposal. Immigrant advocates say TPS reforms should be added to the document.
Whether immigration-related measures survive in the proposal and whether the $3.5 trillion budget bill can pass with only Democratic support remains to be seen.
In a recent tweet, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blasted providing "amnesty amid a border crisis" and decried the budget proposal as "a slew of bad ideas."