RACHEL BUFF FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
When I was in graduate school during the 1990s, I became friends with a Salvadoran refugee who fled his country after being tortured by the police. His name was not Daniel, but I'll call him that in this piece, in the event that he is still alive and prefers anonymity.
Daniel hadn't been politically active back home. But his brother, a union organizer, was murdered by one of the death squads still operating in the country in the long wake of the US-backed "Dirty Wars" there. After his brother's death, Daniel was arrested and tortured. When he got out of jail, he left the country on foot. He walked through Central America to Mexico, crossed the US border, and hopped trains until he wound up in Minnesota. Speaking little English, he had no idea where he was for most of his travels in the US.
Eventually, Daniel attained Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Created in 1990 to respond to "extraordinary and temporary" global conditions, such as hurricane or "ongoing armed conflict," TPS provides short-term harbor -- terms of six to 18 months, renewable at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- for refugees from specifically designated countries: such as hundreds of thousands of people like Daniel.
The TPS program evolved out of a long-existing split in the ideology regulating admission of the foreign-born into the United States. Under this ideology, there are refugees who deserve at least temporary shelter as they flee the storm of history. Migrants, on the other hand, leave their homes seeking economic improvement and should, therefore, be subject to market forces rather than humanitarian relief.
Neither TPS nor its predecessor, Extended Voluntary Departure, were set up to contend with the long-term consequences of political and climate disasters, or to reckon with their historical causes. Migrants from countries that have been subject to prolonged and damaging military interventions by the United States -- El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala, Liberia and Nicaragua -- are treated as though they arrive on our shores and at our borders without historical cause. At best, they are deemed deserving of short-term relief. At worst, as in the recent decisions ending the TPS of Haitians and Salvadorans, their countries are proclaimed to have recovered, converting those who remain in the United States into undeserving, economic migrants.
Although TPS was designed by the Bush administration as a humanitarian program, critics and immigration restrictionists view it as a kind of back-door entry that undermines the orderly, gated process that, they imagine, governs immigration. The program is meant as a temporary stopgap. It is not intended as a remedy for the long-term harm done to nations like El Salvador by US-sponsored action. The politics of TPS meant that, in six to 18 months, depending on the politics of the moment, a survivor like Daniel was supposed to feel safe returning to his nation of origin. He did not.
While TPS did not allow Daniel to naturalize or obtain a green card, it provided work authorization and protection against deportation. Because it was designed to be temporary, maintaining TPS required substantial paperwork. This was challenging for Daniel because of his limited English. Further complicating the situation, both the Bush and Clinton administrations equivocated on whether Salvadorans should qualify for TPS at all.
Daniel found and repaired an ancient blue bicycle, which was his primary mode of transportation in all seasons, including the brutal Minnesota winters. He worked the kinds of low-paid jobs available to workers without papers, and lived in an apartment in St. Paul that he shared with several other Salvadoran men. He had a couple of counseling appointments at the internationally renowned Center for Victims of Torture. He was, in other word, adapting to this country -- becoming “American.”
I don't know what became of Daniel. After I finished graduate school and left Minnesota, I corresponded with him for a while. Three years out, I stopped hearing from him. My letters started coming back to me, marked undeliverable. He could easily have moved and left no forwarding address. He could have been swept up in a raid and deported -- back to El Salvador, or elsewhere.
Like Daniel, the 250,000 Salvadorans and as well as Hondurans, Haitians and Nicaraguans whose TPS status in the United States has been recently terminated by the DHS face uncertain prospects in their home nations. Many of these Americans have lived in the United States for decades, building lives and families and bolstering communities. They return to countries that are unfamiliar to them and, often, entirely unknown to their US-born children. Nations like Haiti and El Salvador survive generations of economic and military imperialism. Currently, they contend with debt-driven austerity programs that limit education and social welfare.
Recognizing some of the ravages of history, the TPS program is a limited step in the right direction for US immigration policy. Comprehensive immigration reform that takes into account the reasons people are compelled to leave their homelands would be much better. At this point, repealing TPS is both nonsensical and cruel, driving many Americans out of the country or underground.