Permanently temporary: 400,000 immigrants, many in the U.S. for decades, could lose their protected status

By Becky Dernbach
Medill Reports

The sounds of chirping birds and fluttering wings punctuate the conversation at Adilio’s house. His daughters rescued the smooth white dove and the small green parakeet from the street, he says. Some of the children are grown now, and some are still in school. He always wanted them to grow up speaking both English and Spanish, to get an education, and to love their new country as their own. And he wanted them to all be together.

The family paloma, or dove, takes flight from Adilio’s daughter’s arm. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)

When Adilio (not his real name) left El Salvador the first time in 1993, a veteran of his country’s civil war, his wife was pregnant with their first daughter. As their family grew, Adilio was away for years at a time working construction in Chicago. After years of separation, he saved enough money to bring his family to join him in the U.S. But now, as President Donald Trump’s administration attempts to terminate Temporary Protected Status for immigrants, Adilio worries he will be forced to leave them again.

“That would take years off my life, to separate from my family,” Adilio said in Spanish, his voice breaking.

Adilio’s daughter cradles the family parakeet. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)

Temporary protected status was intended, as its name implies, to be temporary: a relief for people from countries experiencing ongoing armed conflict or natural disaster who cannot return home safely. Salvadorans in the United States were designated for TPS in 2001 following a series of devastating earthquakes. Their TPS status was routinely renewed for decades by Republican and Democratic presidents. Recipients of TPS have a temporary legal status in which they are authorized to work and protected from deportation, but the program provides no pathway to citizenship.

But the Trump administration has steadily been announcing terminations of TPS for more than 400,000 people from El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan.

Judge Edward Chen issued an injunction Oct. 3 in federal court temporarily blocking the termination for TPS holders from four of these countries, including El Salvador, citing evidence the government’s decision may have roots in “animus against non-white, non-European immigrants.” A separate lawsuit pending in federal court in Massachusetts also includes Hondurans.


While the injunction remains in place, TPS recipients from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan retain their protected status. If the injunction is lifted, 250,000 Salvadorans who have been in the country for nearly two decades could lose their protected status as soon as Sept. 19 of next year.

But Adilio’s life — and family — are here in Chicago.

“We are working,” he said. “We’re constructing the economy of this country. I have all my family here, what am I going to do there?”

The birds Adilio’s daughters rescued, a parakeet and a dove, settle on the back of a dining room chair. Adilio fears he will be separated from his family if he loses his temporary protected status. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)

Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, an immigrant advocacy organization that has a Save TPS campaign, called the injunction a “positive development,” but cautioned that it is not permanent.

“There’s no question that it’s a silver lining in a storm of bad news otherwise. but at the same time I think it is crucially important that people understand that this is under no circumstances something that we can bring to the bank or take for granted as something that will remain in place for the long term,” Chacón said.

The Journey for Justice bus of TPS holders raising awareness of their plight throughout the country and stopped in Chicago on Sept. 6. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), who is poised to become Speaker of the House when the Democratic majority takes power in January, pledged recently that House Democrats “will protect TPS recipients and those pledging unimaginable violence.” But it remains unclear how much power House Democrats will have to pass any legislative agenda with a Republican Senate and president.

Illinois has about 4,000 TPS holders, including 1,503 from El Salvador, according to the most recent U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.

In Adilio’s family, the stress is compounded by the added uncertainty of what will happen to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16, including four of Adilio’s children. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a lower court order to block Trump’s planned termination of DACA. The Trump administration plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Adilio said it would benefit the nation to give recipients of DACA and TPS permanent residency.

“If the government gives residency to everyone protected with DACA and TPS the economy will grow,” Adilio said. Many people are sending money to their home countries to build houses and buy plots of land in case they have to go back, he said. “There is an instability in this country, an uncertainty. People don’t know what’s going to happen. However, if those people know they are secure here they aren’t going to send money there. They’re going to buy houses here.”

The Journey for Justice TPS bus riders celebrate after getting off the bus in Chicago on Sept. 6. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)

This fall, the National TPS Alliance organized a bus tour to dozens of cities throughout the country, campaigning for permanent residency. The bus tour stopped in Chicago Sept. 6. Adilio happened to be at the Salvadoran consulate to get documents the day the bus tour stopped by.

Umaine Louisjean, 47, a TPS holder from Haiti, joined the tour from her home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “We participate to show the Trump administration we are strong when we get together, when we get unified we can make history,” she said. “We pay taxes, some of us own businesses. We deserve permanent residency. We need Trump to stop bigotry.”

TPS bus riders and Chicago area organizers gather near the Salvadoran consulate in downtown Chicago on Sept. 6. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)

Santos Canales, 47, a New Orleans construction worker who is originally from Honduras, also joined the bus tour. “It’s in the hands of the administration, but it’s also in our hands – to fight and defend TPS and educate society,” he said.

Advocates and TPS holders say that countries like El Salvador and Honduras, which have been destabilized by police and military violence, illegitimate dictators, gangs, widespread extortion and lack of economic opportunity, are in no way positioned to receive tens of thousands of people who have not lived there for decades. Indeed, thousands of people from these countries have been fleeing for the United States in recent months, escaping violence and extreme poverty, in what some are calling an exodus.

“I’d prefer to stay in my country, 100,000 times, but we don’t have the opportunity, the jobs there,” said Mauro Navarro, a Salvadoran TPS recipient who has been active in the Chicago-area fight to protect TPS holders. “It would be catastrophic if we all went back, like a hurricane. The government doesn’t have capacity to receive all these people.”

“What’s really important to understand is that the conditions that people left and came to U.S. precisely to overcome are conditions not only of deep economic oppression but often situations of grave insecurity to the point of fearing for their lives,” Chacón said. “Those conditions have not dramatically improved. In many ways it’s gotten even worse.”

In 2013, Adilio wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama. “I was granted a temporary permit called TPS,” he wrote. “I now hope to receive my residency through immigration reform. … I love this country as if it was my own. If it was necessary for me to take a rifle to defend this nation, I would sincerely do it, as I am a veteran of war.”

In 2013, Adilio wrote then-President Barack Obama a letter in support of immigration reform. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)

Adilio said he wrote those words because all of us have an obligation to take up arms to defend their country, and he loves this country as his own.

While citizenship remains out of reach and the future of TPS is uncertain, he wants to be able to continue with the TPS program or find a solution that allows him to become a permanent resident or citizen.

In the meantime, he hopes there will be a political change toward unity. “This country is vulnerable now because the president has caused division,” he said. “It’s not good for a nation or for a family.”

He hopes that politicians will work to eliminate division and racism, and work to protect the country.

“When they talk about the country,” Adilio said, “the country is us.”

Perched next to the dove, the parakeet chirps. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)
Photo at top: A banner with a map of El Salvador hangs in Adilio’s living room. (Becky Dernbach/MEDILL)