Immigration advocates seek protections for TPS recipients. Many work on front lines of pandemic

2020-04-20 | The Miami Herald

April 20-- Apr. 20--As thousands of Central American and Haitian immigrants with temporary status in the United States continue to face the threat of deportation amid the coronavirus pandemic, immigration advocates are pressing the Trump administration to automatically extend work authorizations and to support legislation giving them a pathway to citizenship.

There are over 300,000 people currently benefiting from Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, advocates say. Of that number, over 11,000 are working in health care, fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, said advocates, quoting a recent study by the Center for American Progress.

"TPS holders shouldn't have to worry about being kicked out of their homes, especially while they are caring for our communities and putting their lives on the line," said Pili Tobar, deputy director for America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.

Tobar and immigration experts with the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Family Action Network Movement called on Republican senators Monday to support and pass the American Dream and Promise Act.

Already passed in the House, the legislation provides permanent status to millions of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as minors, known as Dreamers, and to those living in the U.S. under TPS and Deferred Enforced Departure programs.

"We need a real pathway to citizenship for all TPS beneficiaries," said Paula Muñoz, campaign manager for Florida Immigrant Coalition. "We need the Senate and Congress to take leadership and search for a permanent solution such as the Promise Act.... Anything less would continue to throw TPS recipients in a cycle of waiting for expiration dates."

While their work permits were renewed due to federal lawsuits opposing the Trump's administration decision to terminate TPS status for six countries, including Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, beneficiaries of the program still live a life of uncertainty. In the case of Haitians, for example, their documents will expire on January 2, which Miami advocate Marleine Bastien said is right around the corner.

TPS families, she and others say, deserve better, especially considering that thousands are working in essential jobs during the crisis.

Among then is Rony Ponthieux, who has been in the U.S. for 21 years. A nurse since 2006, Ponthieux currently works at Jackson Memorial Hospital in a specialized unit for patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

"I put my life in danger. I put my life on the line to save American lives. All of my family is at risk because of me," he said.

Ponthieux said the administration and members of Congress should think about fair treatment for TPS recipients by making their status permanent. "It's not time to play games," he said.

"We are in a war and the enemy is the virus and the soldiers are not the U.S. Army. They are the healthcare providers, and I can tell you that many, many TPS recipients are on the front lines," said Ponthieux. "They are the soldiers fighting this virus... and I am one of them."

Though federal judges in California and New York both issued injunctions against the administration ending TPS and forcing the administration to extend work permits, the threat of termination of the program and the deportation of beneficiaries continue to loom.

Citing the coronavirus pandemic, 38 Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, sent a letter to the White House last week asking the administration to extend work authorizations for TPS beneficiaries as well as those under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), also targeted by the president.

In the April 15 letter, the senators said there are 11,600 healthcare workers in the country with TPS status. And along with thousands of others in essential jobs, all could be deported. To do so, the senators wrote, would be "needlessly cruel and greatly weaken our nation's essential workforce." The letter noted that more than 90 percent of beneficiaries are nationals of El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti -- three of the six countries the administration has sought to terminate TPS status .

"TPS recipients, like DACA recipients, are vital contributors to our economy and healthcare workforce, the letter said. More than 130,000 TPS holders are "essential critical infrastructure workers,' including 11,600 health care workers," it added.

Senators also note that due to the closure of immigration offices, many recipients could face difficulties in processing renewals.

Bastien said the pandemic has mutiplied the anxiety that recipients were already under.

"It is too hard for them to be thinking about saving lives and taking care of their families and in addition to that, to have to think about this looming date of early next year where they will probably have to pack their bags," she said. "How do you ask people to pack 30, 40 years of their lives in suitcases and bags?"

And while she supports any "piece of legislation that will provide relief," Bastien gave a strong push for the Promise Act, which she said has yet to receive the support of the administration as well as most Senate Republicans, including Florida Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, whom she believes can "take leadership" on the matter.