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BOSTON -- Less than 24 hours after a federal appeals court handed down a long-awaited decision regarding legal immigration status, recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and their families, friends, and allies organized a press conference on Sept. 15 outside of Boston City Hall to call for legislation that would give TPS holders a pathway to permanent residency.
TPS allows immigrants to legally live and work in the United States if extreme circumstances, such as war or natural disasters, prevent them from returning safely to their home countries. There are approximately 400,000 TPS holders in the United States, including 130,000 designated as essential workers.
Under past presidents, TPS holders have been able to renew their status on a regular basis, giving them time to put down roots and have families and careers in the United States. Some have children who are American citizens and have never been to their parents' countries of origin, which still suffer from conditions that would make it dangerous for them to return.
The Trump administration announced plans to end the TPS program for several countries in 2017. However, TPS holders and their children filed lawsuits, including Crista Ramos et al. v. Kirstjen Nielsen et al., which alleged that the ending of the program was motivated by racism. The TPS holders were granted extensions, allowing them to stay in the U.S. during the legal proceedings.
On Sept. 14, in a two-to-one decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Trump administration could legally terminate the TPS program for recipients from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. The court reversed the preliminary injunction that a district court granted the plaintiffs in 2018.
As a result of this decision, TPS recipients from Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan could lose their status in March 2021. For Salvadorans, it would end even sooner, in November 2020. This puts TPS holders who have married and had children in the U.S. in the impossible situation of choosing whether to leave their children behind or bring them to an unsafe country.
It was this new reality that prompted the Sept. 15 press conference at Government Center. Some attendees came from as close by as Harvard University, others from as far away as Connecticut.
Flanked by people carrying banners and signs, over a dozen people spoke, including local politicians, educators, and religious leaders. The TPS holders who shared remarks included leaders of unions, nonprofits, and other organizations.
Several speakers noted that the program is now to end during a global pandemic, and that TPS holders have continued working essential jobs in this dangerous time.
The first to speak at the gathering was Jose Palma, a Salvadoran TPS holder, the coordinator of the Massachusetts TPS Alliance and a member of the executive committee of the National TPS Alliance.
Speaking to The Pilot after the press conference, Palma said that they have two opportunities that give them hope: an appeal of the case potentially to the Supreme Court and the possibility of a new presidential administration following the November elections.
Palma's daughter, Angela Palma, 15, spoke briefly about her family and her experience lobbying. She recalled her parents' advocacy for the Dream Act when she was five and for minimum wage when she was eight.
"Now at 15, I'm fighting for my parents to stay in the U.S.," Angela Palma said.
Over the past two years, she and several other children of Salvadoran TPS holders have been sharing their families' stories by producing a play, "The Last Dream," through Boston Experimental Theatre, and performing it for both local communities and legislators at the state and federal levels.
"My parents came here for a better life and I will continue fighting next to them. We need residency now," Angela Palma said.
Yusufi Vali, director of the mayor's Office of Immigrant Advancement, spoke on behalf of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh about the impact the decision would have on the 12,000 TPS holders that live in Massachusetts.
Vali pointed out that Boston depends "heavily" on TPS holders to fill positions in industries such as construction, food services, and education. He said that they produce $1 billion in national revenue each year.
Addressing the crowd in Spanish, Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, said that the dignity of TPS recipients "is not for sale and will never be."
"The fight does not end here because we are fighting a long-term battle and we will continue with the fight, which goes beyond TPS, which is a fight for our dignity and our rights," Montes said.
She called on public officials to take action, saying she "would like them to go beyond words and be more visible and have compassion for the suffering of our communities."
East Boston State Rep. Adrian Madaro spoke about his experience as the son of an immigrant and the many TPS holders he knew growing up in East Boston. He emphasized the economic contributions TPS recipients have made as homeowners, business owners, taxpayers, and essential workers, and he acknowledged that many had to continue working during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We thank you for your contributions, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic, and we owe you more than the decision that came out yesterday," he said.
Madaro said that rescinding TPS would be "catastrophic," not only because it would cause heartbreak to families, but also because it would harm the economy.
"This is not the America that I love. This is not the America that my father came to, to make a better life for himself and his family. These are not the American values that I hold dear. If we are to extend our hand to folks in need, and conditions have yet to improve in their home countries, and we're in the middle of a pandemic, this is not the time to take that hand away," Madaro said.
Antonio Amaya, a TPS recipient and the director of La Comunidad, Inc. in Everett, was one of the final speakers.
"Yesterday's setback only gives us more strength to get to the finish line, not only for the TPS holders but for the DACA youth and all others fighting to obtain permanent residency," Amaya said in Spanish.
As the event drew to a close, Jose Palma asked all the TPS holders present to raise their hands. He said the reason they were still there was because they had organized and fought since 2017. He said they are now organizing TPS committees in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
"We're not fighting for ourselves, we are fighting for our community and for this country," Palma said.
Father Americo Santos of Most Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston was present at the press conference.
Speaking to The Pilot after the event, he said he attended to support the Salvadoran community, especially those protected by TPS.
"As a priest, my duty and my vocation is to serve those in need," Father Santos said.
Many of the speakers spoke of the opportunity that the upcoming presidential election presents.
"People need to vote with a conscious mind that their vote will have an impact, and that is on millions of people's lives," Palma told The Pilot after the event.