This is my home. We don’t deserve to live in perpetual fear.
Last spring, 17 of my custodial colleagues at Harvard were diagnosed with COVID-19. It wasn’t fair—at that time, we lacked adequate PPE—but it was a hazard of the job. Tasked with keeping the dormitories, dining halls, and classrooms clean for professors and students, we are in close contact with germs every day. We’re the ones wiping down door knobs and scrubbing toilets. It’s tough work that many Americans prefer not to do.
But many of us aren’t American. Around a hundred or so custodians I know at Harvard live here on Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a visa designation for people who have fled armed conflict or natural disaster. Most of us came here from El Salvador in the early 2000s, after two earthquakes devastated the country. We’ve been allowed to live and work here legally for two decades. Then Trump ordered us to leave. This is why the new administration must not simply protect TPS, but press Congress to put TPS holders on a pathway to citizenship.
TPS is scheduled to expire on Oct. 4, 2021, at which time we are either supposed to self-deport, go into the shadows, or wait to be rounded up by ICE. All of these options are cruel and untenable. There are currently 318,000 TPS holders from 10 countries in the United States. We have raised a quarter of a million American-born children, purchased homes, started businesses, and gone into essential industries. Approximately 130,000 TPS holders are essential workers, with 11,600 working in health care, according to NAE. We also fill worker shortages in key industries, from construction to hospitality. Institutions like Harvard will find themselves hard pressed to fill roles like ours should we suddenly disappear.
When I first came to Boston in 2000, it felt like a reunion. I had family members living here, and the city quickly became home. I met my husband Mohammed in 2009, an immigrant from Morocco, and converted to Islam. I began working as a custodian at Harvard University in 2006, making more than I could dream of earning in my native El Salvador. And I’m raising my three American daughters—Virginia, 14, Daniella, 9, and Fatima, 7. They attend school in Boston and they’re thriving.
In September 2017, I was elected a union shop steward for SEIU Local 32BJ. When the pandemic started and Harvard failed to provide adequate PPE, I fought for the health and safety of our staff. The university listened. This fall, they supplied more appropriate PPE and started providing training and testing for COVID-19 twice per week. Our work helped protect scores of university employees—both immigrants and native-born Americans. I can’t imagine going through the pandemic in El Salvador, where, according to Human Right Watch, the current president has encouraged abusive lockdown enforcement measures, including excessive use of force. The country has been, as a piece in the New York Times put it, “backsliding into the kind of authoritarian leadership the country fought a civil war to overturn.”
Yet the fight to keep myself and my colleagues safe at work is much different than my fight to keep us legally living and working in the United States. We’ve pushed Congress; we’ve lobbied; we’ve travelled in car caravans to Washington DC. This past June, we organized for a touring bus named La Libertad—freedom in Spanish—to visit a total of 33 states and 62 US cities, spreading awareness about TPS and the importance of voting for immigrant communities. The lives of TPS holders depended on electing a new American administration.
Like many of you, my heart holds hope for 2021. I have hope for myself, my family, my coworkers, and my community. I am hopeful about the new administration finally taking action to give us security. Next December will be my 20th anniversary in the US. This is my home—the place where my daughters can have a good education, finish college, and follow their professional dreams. Parents like me have repeatedly shown that we’re willing to risk our lives for these opportunities. TPS holders deserve permanent protection. We don’t deserve to live in perpetual fear.
The new administration can reverse Trump’s decision to end TPS. They can also use TPS designation to protect undocumented immigrants from countries where the pandemic is raging: it’s already built into the statute. Homeland security can designate a country for TPS status for reasons “including epidemics.” But permanent security depends on legislation.
Democrats have introduced such a bill. The SECURE Act would put 400,000 current TPS holders, including Salvadorans, on a pathway to permanent residency. We’ve lived here for decades, contributing to our communities and America’s economy. We are not temporary.