Maria Elena Hernandez, a 58-year-old immigrant from Nicaragua, has lived legally in the United States for 19 years. She has family here that she sees daily and a job as a janitor. She is active in her union and volunteers.
Hernandez was at work Monday evening when she received a call from a union organizer who warned that her whole life could soon fall apart. The Trump administration announced that it is ending the temporary protected status that has allowed Hernandez and about 5,300 other Nicaraguan immigrants to remain in the country since 1999. They now have until January 2019 to either find a legal avenue to stay in the country or get out.
Hernandez felt betrayed.
“I was expecting more empathy, more comprehension of all of the good that we contribute to the economy and to the culture here in this country,” Hernandez said, speaking through an interpreter.
There are about 300,000 immigrants living in the U.S. under temporary protected status (TPS), and it will be up to the current administration to determine whether they should be able to stay legally or become targets of President Donald Trump’s deportation efforts. It’s often politically difficult to end protections for people who have lived in the U.S. for years, but Trump did it for Sudanese immigrants with TPS and then again in a separate program for young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. His administration is now weighing whether to do the same for Haitians and Salvadorans, and will soon have to reconsider the fate of Hondurans, whom he granted a six-month extension on Monday.
Trump and his officials called on Congress to step in to help those immigrants. But they also put them at risk of being cast out of a country where they’ve lived for years.
Hernandez doesn’t plan to stay in the U.S. without legal status, but she doesn’t want to go back to Nicaragua. She came to the U.S. in December 1998 on a tourist visa to visit her brothers and stayed because of instability at home. Nicaragua was designated for TPS in January 1999, after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country the previous year.
Hernandez applied for TPS and has renewed it multiple times in the years since. She put down roots, like most other TPS recipients have. She lives with family, including two of her brothers, in an apartment in Plantation, Florida. The family is “always together,” she said, going to church or the beach, or having Sunday dinners.
Leaving them would be particularly painful after their third brother died of cancer last November, Hernandez said. She called her brothers her “reason to live.”
“I already lost one brother, and the idea of being separated from them makes me feel so sad,” she said, adding later, “Just with the death of my brother we all feel a great loss as if there’s a part of our body that’s missing.”
Hernandez and her late brother used to work together at a local college, where she is still a janitor. She was active in helping them fight for raises and better benefits as a member of the 32BJ SEIU, a local of the Service Employees International Union.
When she found out about the TPS decision on Monday evening, one of her U.S. citizen co-workers said they would all fight together to help her stay.
The first step will be to visit a lawyer to determine whether she has legal options. Although she has family members who are U.S. citizens, the sponsorship process is slow and there might not be enough time.
Her best bet is for Congress to pass a bill granting her and other TPS recipients permanent legal status. The Trump administration and other TPS critics have argued the program is not meant to provide long-term status and that it should be ended if the country is no longer suffering from the situation that led to the protected status.
Hernandez said the situation is “not fine” in Nicaragua or in Honduras, which received a six-month extension by default because the administration failed to come to a decision about whether to extend it.
The United States “is supposed to be a leader in human rights and a country that critiques other countries for failing to respect human rights like the countries that we come from,” she said.
“How is it possible that they could then turn around and send us back to these countries?”