Temporary Protected Status Has Arizona Man Trapped In Constant Limbo
Gabriel Navarrete straps an industrial vacuum to his back, and sets to work. When Tucson medical offices close for the day, he cranks up his cleaning business.
“The people who say Latinos come here to take their jobs, it’s a lie,” Navarrete said in Spanish.
An educated and intense man, Navarrete knows keeping his customers means he has to be efficient, and pay attention to small details.
The 55-year-old Salvadoran wants to grow his business and plan retirement. But he has to wait for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to decide if it will extend or cancel the TPS he’s had for nearly 16 years.
“We could lose two houses, businesses and everything we have,” Navarrete said.
DHS grants TPS for three reasons: safety concerns due to an ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster or other extraordinary conditions. TPS can last for periods of 6, 12 or 18 months.
Navarrete has lived through at least 10 cycles since 2001, when the United States gave Salvadorans TPS because of several earthquakes.
“We have to get out of that uncertainty [of being on TPS],” Navarrete said.
The Trump administration, which wants to limit immigration, recently announced plans to end TPS for Nicaragua and Sudan. It has extended the program for Haiti and Honduras, but said people should prepare to go return to both countries. Salvadorans, who make up the largest number of TPS recipients, will learn their fate in January.
Navarrete and his wife, Guadalupe Ponce, work together on Friday nights. They divide chores. He scrubs one part of the office, and she cleans another.
Ponce is from Mexico. She met Navarrete at a late-night café, and they’ve been married for 11 years. Navarrete has been stressed about TPS for months, Ponce said.
“Sometimes his blood pressure goes up a little,” Ponce said in Spanish. “He sleeps. But not well.”
Navarrete is right to worry about losing TPS, according to Dr. Cecilia Menjívar a professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Migration Research at the University of Kansas.
Menjívar has studied TPS for 20 years. The conditions in El Salvador are worse now than in 2001, she said.
“There is more violence now,” she said. “They could go back to a country that is absolutely not ready to receive them because the economy is so weak, still.”
TPS advocates, like the Center for American Progress, say TPS recipients are key contributors to the U.S. economy. The organization recently released a study that found the U.S. could lose $164 billion worth of gross domestic product in a decade, if the government cancels TPS for El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.
"Temporary Protected Status is a unique and relatively small program," said Nicole Svajlenka, senior policy analyst for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. "And I think if more people knew what was going on, and how it’s basically a football that continues to get punted, we would have seen demand much longer ago for some sort of change for TPS beneficiaries."
The government has a ton of information on TPS recipients because they're vetted every time they apply for a renewal, Svajlenka said.
“[TPS recipients] have been here for a really long time,” she said. “They have long-standing ties to the community. They own homes. They have more than a quarter of a million of U.S.-born children.”
TPS recipients with children over 21, or an immediate relative who’s a citizen, can apply to change their immigration status.
If they don't have those options, they’re stuck.
“I think the important question here is why keep people hanging on,” Menjívar, the sociologist, said. “Why keep them in this legal limbo?”
Advocates for limiting immigration, like the Center for Immigration Studies, say TPS extensions should only depend on the situation in the native country.
“If conditions have improved sufficiently that the nationals of the country can be sent home, then they should be sent home,” said Andrew R. Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Arthur oversaw TPS cases as an immigration judge. He also monitored the program as oversight counsel for the House Judiciary Committee on immigration.
“Respectfully, the interests of the individuals who are in the United States, who are in (TPS) status, also should really not be considered,” he said.
Decades of TPS extensions for some nations could hurt another country's chance of receiving an original designation, Arthur has written.
“I believe that it makes it less likely that countries that would benefit from six months of TPS are actually going to get it, because there’s a danger that it’s never going to end," he said.
Countries like El Salvador have received repeated extensions. But the people in the program still have to wait for the government to announce a decision, said Judy C. Flanagan, an immigration attorney who’s had TPS clients for 20 years.
“It’s definitely temporary,” she said. “It’s only for 18 months typically. People are in constant anxiety when you get close.”
Congress should take action so longtime TPS recipients like Navarrete can stay in the U.S., Flanagan said.
“It seems cruel, actually, to make people go back,” she said.
As he mops the long hallways of another doctor’s office in the Old Pueblo, Navarrete recalls the 1980s, when El Salvador let the U.S. military operate in the country. He argues that debt has never been paid, and it’s one reason why TPS recipients should be allowed to become U.S. citizens.
“I believe it’s fair that we’re offered something for that,” he said.
Navarrete won’t know his fate until January. If TPS gets extended for El Salvador, it will only mark the start of an all too familiar limbo with an unknown ending.
And if he loses TPS, Navarrete said he won’t go back to El Salvador.
“I would try to go to a calm part of Mexico,” he said.