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Blanca Martinez has been dreaming of reuniting with her daughters in El Salvador for three decades now. She missed seeing them grow up, and it breaks her heart.
She instead has had to raise and love her daughters through weekly phone calls since she immigrated to Houston in 1991, because earning money for their food, housing and health care was much more important than being able to hug them. She’s currently a housekeeper at a Houston hospital, where she works seven days a week more often than not, sending most of her wages back home to her family.
Martinez is one of nearly 42,000 people living in Texas under Temporary Protected Status — a designation given to migrants by the federal government allowing them to stay in the country temporarily because of natural or political crises in their home countries. Finding work was nearly impossible for Martinez in El Salvador before, so she immigrated to the U.S. when she was 33 years old; she also left during the time of the Salvadoran Civil War, which is regarded as one of the most devastating conflicts in modern Latin American history.
“I need to be here,” Martinez, now 66, said. “I want to be happy, but [I’m not] happy; no family, no happy. I am here to work.”
Martinez has stayed in the country as a TPS holder for 30 years now, but a recent unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court reiterated what the program was designed to provide: temporary refuge. That it’s not a pathway to permanent residency.
Last week, the nation’s highest court ruled that obtaining TPS is not considered a proper “inspected and admitted” entry to the country, which is a requirement for lawful permanent resident status. Some TPS residents came to the country illegally, but because of the program are temporarily protected from deportation.
There are around 320,000 TPS recipients who entered without formal admission who must now undergo a longer route to permanent residency that includes leaving the country and applying to have a visa processed outside of U.S. soil. For some TPS holders, that process could trigger barriers to reentry for up to 10 years.
Immigration hardliners hailed the ruling as a victory.
“The nine justices deserve credit for interpreting the nation’s laws correctly,” said Matthew Tragesser, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. He said the decision “represents a victory for the American people and for the integrity of the TPS program.”
But for immigrant advocates such as Guerline Jozef, founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a California-based nonprofit that provides resources for the nation’s Haitian immigrants, the ruling “sent a shockwave of panic in the hearts of TPS holders and their families.”
Nelson Reyes is the executive director of the Houston office of Central American Resource Center, a nationwide organization that supports Central American immigrants who fled to the U.S. during the civil war there in the late 20th century. Reyes, who has helped Martinez navigate her temporary status for decades now, was shocked by the Supreme Court's ruling and is mainly concerned by how it will separate families.
“For me it was anti-family,” Reyes said about the decision.
Erika Andiola, the chief advocacy officer of the San Antonio-based nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, called the ruling disappointing.
“What makes the ruling even more egregious is that the vote was unanimous,” she said in a statement. “TPS holders came to the U.S. because of unsafe conditions in their native countries and this ruling prevents them from making a true home here. We call on Congress and the Biden administration to keep their promise and create a pathway toward citizenship for all TPS holders.”
The program was established by Congress as a part of the Immigration Act of 1990, and the secretary of homeland security sets the list of countries where immigrants can obtain temporary status. Most of TPS holders are natives of Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, according to the National Immigration Forum.
Texas holds the third highest number of TPS recipients, behind California and Florida. Around 6,060 Honduran TPS residents live in Houston, making it the third-largest metropolitan area across the nation to hold that demographic.
The Supreme Court ruling states that a grant of TPS is not considered a lawful admission into the country, which is one of the requirements for receiving permanent residency, also known as a green card.
TPS holders, however, are not barred from applying to become lawful permanent residents by other means and those who entered the country legally aren’t affected by the ruling.
There aren’t any work restrictions for TPS holders, but obtaining a green card would be assurance that there isn’t an expiration date of their stay in the country. Under TPS, residents are not allowed to vote and can only travel if they are granted a travel permit; however, leaving the country, even with a permit, poses a risk of not being allowed to come back. So most TPS residents don’t.
Martinez, who has been living in Houston alone for three decades now, said she hasn’t visited her home or seen her family in El Salvador since she immigrated to the U.S. in fear of not being allowed to return. She has had to miss the funeral of both her son and mother.
Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted his support for the Supreme Court decision last week.
“The Supreme Court rules that immigration laws must actually be followed,” he wrote. “A unanimous Court, in an opinion by Justice [Elena] Kagan, explains that in order to apply for legal residency, you must have been admitted to the country lawfully. To stay here legally, you must come here legally.”
A majority of Texan TPS recipients came from El Salvador and have lived in the state for an average of 20 years, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research organization. Haitian TPS holders have been living in Texas for an average of 21 years, and around 53,800 children in the state have parents from El Salvador, Honduras or Haiti who have TPS.
A country is designated for TPS for periods of 6 to 18 months, but the secretary of homeland security has the power to extend the period if there continues to be armed conflict, natural disasters or other emergencies in that country. For example, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua were designated as TPS-accepted countries during the George W. Bush administration due to natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and retained that status through the Obama administration.
There currently are a dozen countries on the TPS designation list.
Ira Mehlman, media director of FAIR, said the ruling reinstates what the program was not intended to provide a pathway to permanent residency.
“The T stands for temporary in spite of the fact that pretty much every case where TPS has been granted it has been extended on for many many years, long after whatever the triggering circumstance faded from memory,” he said. “Most of these countries were not exactly paradise before whatever circumstance created the need for TPS and they are not even likely to be even now, so the problem has been that successive administrations have also forgotten what the T stands for.”
As countries have remained on the TPS designation list for years, some immigrants have lived in the U.S. through TPS for decades, growing deep roots in their communities, building careers, and having children who are U.S. citizens.
Some TPS recipients from Central America have been in the country long enough for their U.S.-born children to be enrolled in universities now.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the humanitarian respite center Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said she understood the reasoning behind the ruling but hopes lawmakers pave a pathway to permanent residency for TPS recipients.
“I can understand the Supreme Court making that decision,” she said. “But it is something that the Congress can relook and possibly consider offering this group of people that have been in our communities and country for quite a while and have demonstrated to be good contributors to our communities.”
There are about 30,600 workers in Texas who are TPS holders from El Salvador, and according to the Center for American Progress, without Salvadoran workers, the state’s annual gross domestic product would drop by $1.8 billion. The group estimated that Honduran TPS holders contribute about $404.2 million to the Texas economy.
“It’s unfortunate to see rulings like this take place for families that are not criminals, that are not hurting our country and that are here and have been here for so long,” Pimentel said. “And I just find that it is decisions like this that do not help us as a country because it’s ruling against a group of people that really could be something favorable for our country.”