A blank foster parent application sits on Andrea’s kitchen table, waiting to be filled out. When she and her husband—both youth pastors at a small-town evangelical church—printed the form, she looked forward to fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a foster family: a safe, stable place for children whose lives had been turned upside down. Children unlike herself.
Growing up, her childhood as a Salvadoran immigrant to the United States was tranquil. Andrea, who requested that her last name not be used, did have vague knowledge of the rolling deadline that came up every 18 months, with its accompanying stress over paying the $2,000 fee to maintain her family’s temporary protected status (TPS) with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). But every family had financial concerns, so she felt theirs was nothing abnormally burdensome.
“We just lived a normal life,” Andrea said. “We’re as rooted as anybody.”
The TPS program currently allows 417,000 immigrants who fled extraordinary circumstances to live in the US with permission to work. Many have become deeply enmeshed in their communities, impossible to extricate without sending ripples of instability through families, churches, and businesses.
The Trump administration’s decision to terminate TPS for some countries has shaken America’s immigrants. Many will face the decision to remain illegally in what they consider to be their home or to return to a place that would be unsafe for their families. The terminations also cast a shadow of uncertainty over efforts to extend TPS to immigrants from Venezuela. The political situation there has grown dramatically unstable as opposition leader Juan Guaidó, backed by the US and more than 50 nations, continues his attempted ouster of President Nicolás Maduro.
Politically, most observers agree that TPS for Venezuelans is tenable. Because of the communist, anti-American rhetoric of Maduro, the US offering protection to those fleeing his regime has both humanitarian and diplomatic merit. “Venezuela, in some ways, is a textbook case for why TPS was invented,” said Matthew Soerens, director of church mobilization for World Relief.
The TPS program was intended to allow those in the US without other legal documentation to remain “due to conditions in the country [of origin] that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely,” explains USCIS. Typically this includes war, natural disaster, or significant instability.
Federal lawmakers have filed bills to extend TPS to Venezuela, which “clearly meets the standard for TPS as it is obviously too dangerous for Venezuelan nationals to return to their country,” wrote 24 US senators in a March 7 letter to President Donald Trump.
Lawmakers have also filed bills to extend protections for other countries losing TPS, such as Honduras and El Salvador. These are more intended to address the reality that many of these immigrants have established lives in America. While democratically governed, Latin America’s Northern Triangle nations are still largely controlled by gangs and do not offer the same economic stability.
But the decision to allow groups of people to come to the US should always weigh multiple factors, not just the humanitarian concerns of individual immigrants, said Mark Tooley, editor of Providence, a conservative foreign policy journal. While he acknowledges the situation in Central America is no doubt dangerous for its residents, Tooley says gang violence and poverty don’t necessarily merit a diplomatic solution. (That stance is congruent with the Trump administration’s policy change disallowing gang and domestic violence as grounds for asylum.)
By extending TPS to Venezuelans, in contrast, the US would be using the program toward its diplomatic end, as condemnation of a hostile government, Tooley argues. “The US government is not a strictly humanitarian operation,” he said. There could very well be a good argument for including a new country, for extending TPS for some, or for finding a permanent solution for recipients, he reasons. But those decisions should be based on a comprehensive assessment of what’s best for US citizens.
‘It has never been very temporary.’
Even if TPS is offered to them, some Venezuelans fear a future similar to that of their Central American neighbors, said one pastor in Illinois who leads an evangelical congregation that is mostly Hispanic and requested anonymity for their safety. One of his Venezuelan members is in the US on a student visa and told him she was not sure she would take TPS even if it were an option. If she registers, she predicts she’ll be easier to deport when the program ends—whether or not Venezuela is stable. “She’s feeling trapped,” the pastor said.
For immigrants in his church in South Carolina, especially those from Venezuela, associate pastor Victor Prieto said the temporary designation is a flicker of hope. “At least they have this freedom of being able to get a driver’s license [and] go to work,” he said. “Even if you give them a month of peace—of freedom—they will take it.”
Prieto is Venezuelan American himself and is connected to Central Americans through his role as chair of the language and linguistics department at Northern Greenville University. In some cases, he said, the TPS window of time is long enough for immigrants to fall in love and marry or to obtain the kind of work that allows them to qualify for more long-term visas and green cards.
Renewals are common. In El Salvador, for instance, a series of devastating earthquakes led the US to offer TPS to its citizens, but the Bush and Obama administrations continued to renew it for 17 years as violence increased.
As TPS is extended and extended, families like Andrea’s put down roots. However, their feeling of a local life is not grounded in reality, as she found out in January 2018 when the Trump administration announced it would allow TPS to expire for about 313,000 people from Nicaragua (in place since 1999), El Salvador (since 2001), Haiti (since 2010), and Sudan (since 1997). A federal court in California blocked the termination last October, and the case is now tied up in appeals.
A separate suit was filed after the Trump administration announced it would also end TPS for about 95,000 people from Honduras (in place since 1999) and Nepal (since 2015). Meanwhile, up for renewal in 2020 will be about 8,000 people from Somalia (in place since 1991), South Sudan (since 2011), Syria (since 2012), and Yemen (since 2015). “The problem is really the way it is set up,” Soerens said. “It has never been very temporary.”
Pursuit of Protection
Andrea’s family immigrated from El Salvador in 2001, when she was four years old, after an earthquake destroyed her parents’ dental clinic. As professionals with a profitable business, her parents had been targeted by gangs. Her mom was robbed at gunpoint. The family car was stolen. Even having to completely start over in the US, her parents told her, it was the right call.
Andrea and her brother were able to get driver’s licenses and jobs, and eventually she went on to college. As a TPS recipient, she could not apply for federal financial aid, despite her parents’ work permits and obligation to pay US taxes. The family found a way to pay for her education, and she met her husband while in school. Both answered a call to ministry in a small Texas town.
When Andrea heard the announcement that TPS for Salvadorans was ending, she said, she started to panic. Married to an American citizen, she has a green card on the way. Her youngest sister, age 13, is a US citizen. Her parents and brother, however, were in a precarious place. For them, deportation to El Salvador would be devastating. Her brother does not speak Spanish and, at 19, would be a prime target for gang recruitment. Her parents, now 18 years older than when they left, would have to start over again in a country the World Bank calculates has more homicides per capita than any other in the world.
This spring, Andrea’s parents and brother learned they were eligible to apply for green cards, through a petition filed by her uncle more than 10 years ago. The petition had been tied up in USCIS’s long administrative backlog, and the family had no reason to hope it would be processed before their TPS expired. The timing, as Andrea sees it, was providential. “Having experienced this last year of fear of the unknown—it’s crippling,” Andrea said. Now that their crisis has passed, she’s in recovery mode. The foster application is back on the table.
Stable and serving
Paralysis is not uncommon for those with immigration anxiety, said Prieto, the South Carolina pastor. His predominantly Hispanic congregation has a mix of statuses, and he can always tell when news of an immigration crackdown or raid has broken. Undocumented church members just “stop coming to things,” he said. They opt for safety instead.
When a church’s members are busy managing their own crises, he said, it makes it difficult to focus on outreach.
One of the benefits of TPS is that it is granted to groups of people, making it possible for them to stabilize, network, and invest in their community. Corporate mercy and blessings extended to groups of people is a biblical concept. Throughout the Old Testament, God deals corporately with Israel (e.g., Ex. 32) and its role among other nations and city-states, whether as missionaries (e.g., Jonah) or exiles (e.g., Jer. 29:7).
Corporate mercy is also an effective strategy, said University of San Francisco economist Bruce Wydick. When counseling American churches and individuals how to make the biggest difference in the communities they want to reach, especially in fragile economies such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the author of Shrewd Samaritan prioritizes whole-community efforts.
When whole families can have that stability, Prieto said the benefits extend to the community. “If those churches are stable,” he said, “they are serving the community.”
Bekah McNeel is immigrant communities editor for Christianity Today.
This article has been updated with TPS statistics made available after its original publication.
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