The threat of deportation has become a daily reality for many immigrants since the election of President Donald Trump.
Lawyers and activists have pushed back against Trump’s policies, which target young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, people from temporarily protected countries, and travelers from a half-dozen Muslim-majority nations.
“I’ve been focusing on our community quite a bit because there’s such a strong need under the new administration,” immigration attorney Hardeep Sull said while volunteering at a November immigration forum. “In this time and age, I see in my clients a lot of skepticism. They really want to go into the shadows and just not be noticed.”
Sull & Associates has about 300 active immigration-related cases, with 20 to 30 percent on a pro bono basis each year. Sull said people have become more concerned about their status and are afraid that traffic tickets and other simple infractions could lead to severe consequences.
Trump’s decision in September to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program affects about 12,400 young immigrants in Nevada and about 690,000 nationally, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Trump gave Congress six months to replace the Obama-era program, which was instituted through an executive action.
The Dream Act would provide relief to young immigrants who are part of the DACA program, but it has for years failed to move forward in Congress, despite having bipartisan support. Democrats, including those in Nevada’s congressional delegation, some Republicans (Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., among them), and immigration activists are pushing for a Dream Act vote before 2018, citing year-end spending bills in Congress that allocate funding for immigration enforcement.
Trump’s administration also seems to be scaling back the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program offered to citizens of countries where it is unsafe to return home because of natural disasters and civil war, among other criteria.
In addition, the Supreme Court has allowed full enforcement of Trump’s revised travel ban, issued in September, even while legal challenges against the order persist. The ban affects Muslim-majority countries Iran, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and Syria, as well as North Korea and Venezuela.
TPS in Nevada
The federal government doesn’t break down the numbers by state, but the Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that there are about 6,300 citizens of El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti — the three countries with the most TPS recipients — in Nevada.
Taking their designation away would cost the state GDP about $270 million, according to the center. Further statistics of TPS designation for the other seven countries is not available. Temporary protection for citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was terminated in May. The Department of Homeland Security on Nov. 20 terminated the TPS designation for Haitian nationals, giving them an 18-month period (until July 22, 2019) to allow them to organize their return home.
Temporary Protected Status was created under the Immigration Act of 1990. According to the Department of Justice, 22 countries have been designated in the legislation’s history.
Foreign countries deemed unsafe because of a humanitarian crisis or that are not adequately prepared to take back citizens can be designated for the status by the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
As examples, Hurricane Mitch in Honduras (1998), catastrophic earthquakes in El Salvador (2001) and Haiti (2010), and the armed conflict in Syria have allowed qualifying undocumented nationals from those countries to obtain temporary protection from deportation through DHS.
This means nationals of these countries living illegally in the United States (who have been continuously living in the U.S. since TPS designation was given to their home country) can be shielded from deportation, acquiring permits to legally reside and work here.
Immigrants must submit themselves to a stringent application process that includes deep vetting and biometrics checks that guarantee they pose no threat to public safety. There are currently eight countries with TPS designation. DHS Secretary Elaine Duke recently ended protection for Haitians, who need to arrange a legal avenue to stay or return to their home country in 2019. The decision came after a review by DHS in which the agency determined extraordinary conditions that kept its nationals from returning are no longer there. Pending reviews of conditions of the TPS-eligible countries, the designation for their nationals can be canceled or extended six or 18 months.
“I consider this country as my own”
TPS was created and maintained in the spirit of bipartisanship, said Michael Kagan, director of the Immigration Clinic at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law during a November rally in support of those with protected status.
Immigration decisions made by the federal government are now strictly political, Kagan said. The U.S. should “live up to the humanitarian values that are actually embodied in our immigration laws and have been endorsed by Congress historically.”
On Nov. 6, DHS announced the TPS designation for Nicaragua would be terminated Jan. 5, giving its nationals a year from that date before they face deportation. For Hondurans, whose designation was also set to expire in January, DHS extended the protection another six months.
“Based on the lack of definitive information regarding conditions on the ground, (Duke) has not made a determination at this time, thereby automatically extending the current TPS designation. However, it’s possible the designation will be rescinded,” according to a DHS news release.
José Lopez, 49, has lived most of his life in Las Vegas, where he works for Brady Linen Services and is a Culinary Union member. He fled Honduras following Hurricane Mitch.
Recently, a tumor prompted doctors to consider removing 90 percent of his stomach, according to the union. Health insurance through work allowed him to receive treatment.
Almost 30 years ago, Lopez entered the U.S. illegally.
For a decade, before applying and being granted TPS protection in 1998, “one was always looking out for everything, you look out for police, you look out for everything,” he said.
The protection provided freedom for him to go seek out the job he truly wanted.
After the November announcement, Lopez faces the same uncertainty he did prior to being protected.
“I consider this country as my own,” Lopez said. “Living here for 28 years, that’s more than half of my life. If I ever returned to Honduras, no one knows me there, and I don’t know anyone, even my family.”