Since 1990 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients in the United States have lived in limbo, often out of the spotlight. Currently, 325,000 people in the U.S. live with TPS and its uncertainties. This year’s TPS renewal for over a dozen countries will depend on actions that need to be taken by the Biden Administration and Congress, as they respond to a recent Supreme Court decision and an ongoing lawsuit in the 9th Circuit.
“TPS means a lot to me because we are able to do a lot of things that people who are undocumented are not able to do. I was able to get a driver’s license. I was able to work in a different job, to ask for loans, to buy a house. TPS does help a lot,” said Claudia Lainez, a TPS recipient since 2001 and a Regional Organizer with the National TPS Alliance. “But after 18 months, we still have to renew our TPS and that means TPS can be terminated whenever they want and kick us out, if they want to do that.”
The TPS program, though not particularly well-known, is meant to provide a safe haven for individuals from specific communities fleeing war or other disaster, and is offered to individuals from 24 countries, as well as the Kosovo province. TPS expires regularly, with different regions on their own schedule, and TPS for each country must be granted or renewed by the Department of Homeland Security. In June 2021, the United States Supreme Court further limited the possibility of TPS receiver to apply for permanent residency.
“The current TPS process creates a situation in which every 12 months or 18 months, whatever the time period for your particular country is, you’re looking over your shoulder, praying that this thing gets continued so that the life that you’ve built in this country, that you’re able to continue living it. It is really uncomfortable and for a lot of folks a traumatizing experience,” said Nana Gyamfi, Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
In short, TPS grantees may work, attend school, and own a home in the U.S. They must also apply for TPS while they are in the country, whether or not it’s their first time applying. Most of these individuals originally come to this country on a student, work, or tourist visa, though some are undocumented. This group must also wait to hear if their country’s specific TPS status will be extended or renewed before they may re-apply, within 180 days of the application process opening up. In order to re-apply they complete an application, pay a fee, and pass an immigration screening. As with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and similar to all of those who are undocumented, there is no path to citizenship for TPS recipients.
“It’s really great to see this program that has been around for so long, finally be part of the broader immigrant rights movement, because for a long time it was not,” said Sulma Arias, a former TPS recipient from El Salvador, and the current Director of Immigrant Rights for Community Change. In part, that was because of our silos, in part because TPSers felt safe and protected by their status. Trump’s election changed all of that.”
According to TPS organizers like Arias, many who receive TPS felt confident in the program’s regular renewal prior to the Trump Administration’s onset when the program became a target of this office. Because of the Administration’s actions, there is an ongoing lawsuit in the 9th circuit, Ramos v. Nielsen, which was filed after Trump and his team moved to terminate TPS for several countries. The 9th circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled an injunction noting that TPS-holders were likely to win the case. From that decision, TPS was automatically renewed for nine months for the specific countries mentioned in the lawsuit (Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador) and then re-renewed again. Currently plaintiffs are waiting to hear back from the Biden Administration about what actions they might take to respond to the injunction and court order.
“On October 4th , TPS is expected to finally be terminated for many countries, but based on the fact that we’re entering this process of mediation with the Biden Administration, we are expecting that one of the potential settlements could be a full on re-designation of TPS, meaning that they would restore TPS beyond the October 4th renewal date,” said Erik Villalobos, Communications Manager for the National TPS Alliance. “When you remember that Trump was talking about shit-hole countries, he was talking about TPS. He was specifically talking about TPS countries. We knew that this was a very racist attack, a very anti-immigrant attack to attempt to terminate this program.”
According to Villalobos the Biden Administration who inherited the lawsuit requested two 60-day delays before agreeing to a mediation process with plaintiffs in June 2021.
In addition to the Supreme Court decision and the 9th circuit lawsuit, the US House of Representatives has passed the American Dream and Promise Act (228 yeas — 197 nays), which would provide a pathway to citizenship for TPS-holders and some other immigrant groups. The bill was last heard in June 2021 in the U.S. Senate Committee of the Judiciary.
“We describe TPS as being under-documented. You’re not ‘undocumented,’ meaning that there’s some kind of paperwork that you have that’s allowing you to stay in this country and to work, but it has to be renewed. Every country has a different renewal date. And at the end of that time period, let’s say it’s been 18 months, if you are not re-designated, you lose your status and you either have to leave or you become an undocumented person or you somehow adjust your status to give you some kind of documented status,” said Gyamfi.
TPS also differs from asylum, although they are often confused for each other. Asylum, for example, can be applied to only specific individuals who fear returning to their home countries. TPS, on the other hand, is temporary and is applied to individuals in the United States when the designation is made. The process of receiving asylum can take six months to many years and asylum recipients can lose their status only in specific circumstances. Unlike asylum, TPS provides immediate benefit to TPS-holders, though it must be regularly re-designated and renewed.
“TPS is especially important because of how it provides blanket protection that provides immediate benefits [such as protection from deportation and temporary employment authorization] and how it may fill in gaps seen in the U.S. Asylum system. Many folks may slip through the cracks of the asylum system because of systemic racism or other issues,” said James Rasmussen, a fellow with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, in an email statement.
According to Rasmussen, TPS re-designation is primarily in the hands of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. “The biggest barrier for folks with TPS as they apply or reapply is the uncertainty of what the future looks like, and if they will continue to receive TPS,” said Rasmussen.
For those seeking to apply for TPS, Rasmussen recommends contacting a local United Way that can provide information about legal resources in your community.
To learn more about TPS and its application process and re-designations, visit: https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/temporary-protected-status
Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism can be a tool that can be used to build power in historically-marginalized communities.