Last fall, 13 kids, ages 10-17, including my own teenage son and daughter, traveled to Congress from their home in Lynn, Massachusetts, to perform a play called The Last Dream. Before an audience of legislative aides and a few Congressmen, the kids told stories of how they felt in January 2018 when they learned that President Donald Trump planned to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a designation that allowed their Salvadoran parents to live legally in the United States. All of these kids—and roughly 280,000 like them—are American citizens, but the Trump administration is giving immigrant parents like me an impossible choice: We can either take our kids away from the country of their birth or stay here with them and risk forcible deportation.
This is now the brutal reality faced by hundreds of thousands of people. It’s why our kids delivered their heartfelt message with uncomplicated grace: Help us. Please. It’s because of these children that I hope the Senate will pass the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which would finally offer TPS holders permanent legal status.
Approximately 318,000 people living in the US have Temporary Protected Status. We are from 10 countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The majority of us, about 195,000 people, are from El Salvador and represent 27% of all Salvadorans living in the US today. Most Salvadoran TPS holders received the designation in 2001 after devastating earthquakes struck the country. And though the status was designed to be temporary, year after year, the United States renewed it. Every 18 months, the American government told us, “Stay here, it’s not safe to return.”
And so, we entered the workforce, married, and had children. And now, after nearly two decades, the White House has decided to force us out. A federal court ruled we can stay until Jan 4, 2021, but the clock is ticking.
I was 25 when I received TPS after fleeing a devastating civil war, multiple earthquakes, and other natural disasters in El Salvador. A few years later, I met my wife Mayra, who had also fled El Salvador’s unbearable conditions. We settled in Massachusetts. Here in the US, I pursued the American dream. I earned an associate’s degree in paralegal studies from North Shore Community College and worked my way from dishwashing and driving trucks to a full-time paralegal position at Justice at Work, a legal nonprofit that provides legal support to workers.
Without a doubt, my biggest accomplishment is my family. My oldest son, Kevin, just graduated from high school and plans to be a cardiologist. My daughter Angie, 14, wants to be a physical therapist, and my 4-year-old Ezequiel just started preschool. Our cheerful baby girl, Valentina, is about to turn 1. They’re all US citizens.
If the Trump administration forces us back to El Salvador, that would mean certain danger. The US State Department recently issued a travel warning to Americans headed to the country, noting that “violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. … Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
Since the Trump administration announced the end of TPS for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan, we have come together to create a national movement from scratch. Today I serve as coordinator of the National TPS Alliance. I’ve come to know thousands of TPS members in our 60 committees across 27 states.
One of our primary goals has been education. At first, many policymakers and representatives we contacted didn’t even know what TPS was. That’s due in part to how successfully we TPS holders have integrated into American communities. We’ve established roots here as homeowners and businesses creators. In December, the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy calculated the economic contributions of TPS holders and their impact on the US economy. Using the most recent available data, from 2017, NAE found that nearly all—94%—of TPS holders were employed.
Together, we paid more than $1.5 billion in taxes and held $5.8 billion in spending power. More than one out of every 10 TPS holders reported being self-employed. We’re also some of the most law-abiding legal immigrants in the country, undergoing a detailed background check when we reregister our status every 18 months.
And while the National TPS Alliance successfully litigated and won a preliminary injunction last October granting some TPS holders the ability to remain in the US until 2021, it’s not enough. We’re asking for full permanent residency, not a continuation of our current purgatory. We are law-abiding, upstanding people, not political pawns.
Without the full passage of the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, the future of my own family and thousands of other mixed-status TPS families is uncertain. In June, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 passed the House. Seven Republicans crossed the party line in favor of it, helping our nation take a small step forward. I hope the Senate will follow suit in passing the bill, allowing hundreds of thousands of American children with TPS-holding parents a future free from fear.
José Palma is National Coordinator of the National TPS Alliance. He has lived in the greater Boston area for over 20 years.