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For an estimated 15,000 immigrant New Yorkers granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) because of turmoil in their home countries, a year’s extension of legal refuge announced earlier this month brought scant relief.
That’s because at any moment a federal judge could rule against plaintiffs in one of two lawsuits and find that the Trump administration in 2017 acted within its power to end the federal program for immigrants from some nations. With that, the immigrants’ right to live in the U.S. legally would cease.
Whether they hail from Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Sudan or Nepal, the stakes faced by for those living under TPS are much the same.
A decision in favor of the White House would end a months-long injunction that has forced federal authorities to keep TPS in place while the cases proceed.
After spending years building lives in the United States and working legally, thousands of New Yorkers could be forced to either return to grueling conditions in the nations they left — or find their way in the U.S. without legal documentation.
These are some of their stories.
Daughter’s Birthday a Present for Mom
A woman who asked to be identified as Maria is hoping to find a third path — through her daughter, who turns 21 next week.
At a conference room in lower Manhattan on Halloween, Maria, 59, nodded along as her lawyer, Hasan Shafiqullah of the Legal Aid Society, spoke.
She anxiously looked at her hands as they discussed the youngest of her five children — the only one born in the U.S.
On her birthday, Maria’s daughter plans to petition the federal government for her mother to become a permanent resident of the country she’s called home since 1995.
“It’s the American dream,” Maria told THE CITY in Spanish. “It’s tranquility. After being here all this time, I think that once I have it, I can finally say that it’s over. I’m OK now.”
‘I Was Too Scared’
Maria left Honduras in 1995 to find work in the U.S., leaving behind four children. Two have since come to the U.S.
She found a job cleaning at a beauty salon in Brooklyn. Her boss told her not to talk to clients.
But the fear of living undocumented dissipated for Maria a few years later, when Hondurans residing in the U.S. became eligible for Temporary Protected Status after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1999, killing thousands and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Congress created TPS in the early 1990s to allow presidents to give immigrants from countries embroiled in violent conflicts or the aftermath of natural disasters a chance to stay in the U.S. for a limited time. The first beneficiaries were Salvadorans fleeing a bloody civil war.
A Social Security card and a work permit meant stability, Maria said.
“You were always scared,” she said. “Before, I was too scared to open my mouth to speak. I thought that if I went to a hospital the police could detain me.”
No Kids, No Chance
The vast majority of New York City’s TPS recipients hail from Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras, and have been in the United States for an average of 15 years, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
The status allows immigrants to have a “normal life,” said Albert Saint Jean, the New York City organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
“They opened up businesses,” Saint Jean added. “They sent their kids to schools. They became established and owned homes. But the thing is that all that could be taken away real quickly.”
Anil, a Queens resident who has lived in New York since the mid-1990s, came from Nepal on a student visa.
He became bedridden after suffering a slipped disk in his back. A lawyer assured Anil he could put grad school on hold while he recovered, but “that’s when things started to fall apart,” he said.
Anil’s legal status lapsed and he “could not go back without a graduate degree and nothing to show,” he said. So he became undocumented, finding work as a cab driver.
He lived in legal limbo for 15 years — until a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015, killing thousands.
Then-President Barack Obama granted TPS to Anil and other Nepali residents in the U.S. Anil returned to school and earned a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate Center in human rights and international studies, which led to a part-time job working for a local nonprofit.
He even got to visit Nepal last year after two decades away, knowing he could freely reenter the U.S.
“Somewhere in the back of my head I always thought, ‘Maybe I want to go back and do something in Nepal,’” he said. “But when I got to go back, that’s when I realized ‘No, that’s not my home.’”
“Home is where my heart is and my heart is in New York, you know?” he said.
Anil’s wife also has TPS. They don’t have children, giving them no pathway to legal status in the U.S. If TPS ends, he expects to become undocumented again, “which would mean loss of work, and loss of health insurance. That is our biggest worry, right now,” he said.
“I’m in my early 50s now and not as healthy as I used to be and I need to go see the doctor every now and then, you know?”
Working New Yorkers
In New York City, most TPS beneficiaries have jobs and are more likely to be working than other adults, with 82% participation in the labor market, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Without protected status, “people will have to go back to the irregular economy,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s New York office.
“They’re employed right now in higher wages, which happens because you could work in the regular economy,” Chishti added. “That is going to change. They’re going to get fewer and fewer well-paying jobs.”
For her first four months in the U.S., Blanca, 46, worked in the shadows undocumented, cleaning at a Midtown fast-food restaurant.
Shortly after her arrival in 2000, a series of devastating earthquakes wracked El Salvador, killing over 1,000 people and displacing more than a million.
Her family back home slept outside, for fear the cracked walls of their adobe house would tumble down.
But for Blanca, the earthquake presented an opportunity for relief, since she could now apply for TPS.
Just like many others in her situation, Blanca waited anxiously every year to learn whether the program had been extended.
It was. Again and again, for 19 years in a row.
She found a job caring for the elderly and later spent nearly 10 years working double swing-shifts at a poultry processing plant in Georgia — helping her support her children in the U.S. and El Salvador.
Two months ago, Blanca moved back to Brooklyn to be with three sons who recently gained asylum in the U.S.
A Long Wait
It’s a blessing to have her sons here, she said. But employment has been harder to find. Her work permit — which doesn’t reflect the TPS extension announced this month — expires in January.
Blanca’s dream is to one day open a restaurant that sells pupusas, a Salvadoran delicacy.
“I would work even harder,” she said. “But doing what I like and not only for myself, but for my family and others who need work — something that was often denied to me.”
If she were to lose TPS, it would mean going back to square one. But leaving isn’t an option, she said.
“How could I go back to a place where my son has never visited. If we barely have enough to eat here, how about there?” she asked, adjusting her short brown hair. “I don’t feel like this is a country, I feel like this is a home. Because, honestly, it’s where my children are.”
She spoke as she sat with a fourth son, Ariel, her youngest and her best hope for gaining permanent residency in the U.S. He recently started college, and turns 21 in three years.
“I think my mother is a paranoid person,” said Ariel, gazing at her from his seat in a Brooklyn diner.
“All that paranoia that she has about being deported or her fears of not having any stability because she’s not a citizen — I feel like that would go away for her,” he said. “I feel like that would be a more healthy way of living, mentally.”
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