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Walter Ayala Ortiz wants people to know that he’s just like them.
Ayala Ortiz, 42, owns a home in St. Paul and works in the IT department at Century College. He’s married and has two children. He has lived in Minnesota for most of his life.
That situation, he said, could describe countless immigrants like him in the U.S. who hold temporary protected status. TPS is a designation that allows immigrants from certain countries to stay in the U.S. legally if troubles in their home countries, like armed struggles or natural disasters, prevent safe return. The immigration status is temporary and must be renewed–for each country and then by each individual–every six, 12, or 18 months.
“We’re no more than average citizens of this country, doing regular work,” Ayala Ortiz said.
But now, following a federal appeals court ruling earlier this week, TPS holders could see their lives upended. In 2017 and 2018, the Donald J. Trump administration moved to end TPS designation for immigrants from four countries: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Haiti. A 2018 lawsuit against the move prompted a district court in California to enjoin the new rules, meaning they couldn’t be enforced. But on Monday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the injunction.
Under the ruling, people from the four affected countries will see their TPS status expire on January 4, 2021. They won’t face immediate deportation. Sometime before their TPS expiration date, they will receive work permits that will briefly extend their stay in the country. According to the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Salvadorans will get an additional 12 months; TPS holders from the other countries will have four months.
Ayala Ortiz is one of these immigrants. He came to Minnesota from El Salvador in 1994, at the age of 16. At the time, the country was barely recovering from a more than decade-long civil war.
“I had no future there,” he said. “Everything was chaos. My mom and I decided that coming here would be a better choice for me.”
For the first few years, Ayala Ortiz lived in the U.S. undocumented. He received TPS status in 2001, and has been renewing it every 12 to 18 months since then. The renewal process is costly—more than $400, he said—and includes a background check each time. But Ayala Ortiz said it’s all he’s known.
“A lot of us have built our lives around TPS,” he said. “We’ll continue to fight this as much as we can. It’s not over yet.”
Dolores Margarita de García Chapetón, also from El Salvador, has co-owned El Guanaco bakery, in St. Paul and Bloomington, for 12 years. She and her husband have lived in the U.S. under TPS status for 20 years.
Margarita de García Chapetón said her business employs 30 people whose jobs would be in jeopardy should she and her husband be deported.
“It’s devastating,” she said.
‘There’s nothing temporary about these individuals’
The largest group living in Minnesota from the four affected countries is Salvadoran immigrants, who number more than 7,000, according to Minnesota Compass, a nonprofit data and analysis site.
At least 400 Sudanese immigrants came to the state in the 1990s, according to the International Institute of Minnesota, and roughly the same number of Haitans live in the state, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
Previous estimates of all U.S. immigrants with TPS counted some 200,000 Salvadorans, 46,000 Haitians, and 2,500 Nicaraguans. It’s not clear how many of these immigrants reside in Minnesota.
When it started in 1990, the TPS designation was meant to offer short-term residence and not a path to citizenship.
David Wilson, a Minneapolis immigration attorney who works on TPS issues, said the status originated from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Many Chinese nationals in the U.S. didn’t feel safe returning to their country at that time.
Throughout the next decade, the U.S. government added more countries with unstable governments to the protected list.
“When it blew up in the ‘90s, no one thought it would become this long, extended thing that it turned into,” Wilson said.
Some immigrant groups formerly eligible for TPS have been able to push for a citizenship pathway. Such was the case last year for Liberian Americans. After years of efforts from that community, Congress approved a measure granting them eligibility for permanent residency.
Advocates are currently pushing for Congress to pass the Dream and Promise Act, which would provide a permanent solution for other TPS holders to stay in the country. Mustafa Jumale, a co-founder of the nonprofit Black Immigrant Collective, supports that move.
“There’s nothing temporary about these individuals,” Mustafa said. “They’re deeply rooted in Minnesota and their community.”
Marc Prokosch, an immigration attorney based in Roseville, said the future of the TPS holders will largely depend on the outcome of the coming presidential election. A new administration could reverse plans to end TPS.
If TPS for immigrants from the four countries indeed ends, Prokosch said what happens next will unfold on a case-by-case basis.
Some TPS holders would be able to pursue other immigration channels to stay—”whatever they would be eligible for,” Prokosch said. Immigrants who’d previously faced deportations would find themselves in a worse position.
“It really comes down to, ‘Have they seen an immigration judge before?’” he said. “If they haven’t, then there’s hope that they might be eligible for something else. If they have, then they’re probably done.”
By “done,” Prokosch means vulnerable to deportation. For TPS holders like Ayala Ortiz, who have children who were born here and are citizens, ending the designation could split their families.
“Some of them are going to have to decide if they’re going to go live with their parents, which is absurd,” Ayala Ortiz said.
Margarita de García Chapetón, 54, has two grown daughters on DACA status and three grandchildren who are citizens.
“I don’t want to leave my children or my grandchildren behind,” she said. “If that situation is going to happen, my heart will bleed.”
Waiting on a green card
Ayala Ortiz may have another option. His wife is a U.S. citizen and he applied for a green card through her status. But he said the case has been moving slowly for more than a year.
“I haven’t had a court date or anything like that,” he said about his pending green card application.
Despite this, Ayala Ortiz said many TPS holders don’t have the luxury of this option. He also questioned whether policymakers had fully thought through the economic ramifications of ending TPS for so many people.
Ayala Ortiz pointed to a study released earlier this year showing that across the U.S.,130,000 TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti fit the definition of essential workers: jobs out of the home that are critical to industries like agriculture and health care.
“The impact is going to be tremendous,” he said. “It’s a lot of labor and a lot of money.”