Steven V. Roberts: These ‘political orphans’ deserve help

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 9, 2021

For two decades, Irma Chavez has lived in legal limbo.

An Arkansas businesswoman with four American-born children, she remains a provisional resident of this country and must renew her status every 18 months. Now she’s trusting the Biden administration to make her life more certain and secure.

“We really hope everything is going to change in our favor now,” Chavez told the Associated Press. “We are good people. We work. We do our taxes. We pay our taxes.”

Immigrants like Chavez contribute every day to the nation’s economy and culture. They’ve earned the peace of mind that would come with a permanent solution to their fragile position. But they are true orphans in America’s complex and contentious immigration system, and fulfilling their hopes will be difficult.

Chavez and more than 400,000 other immigrants from 10 different countries live here under a program called Temporary Protected Status (TPS), created in 1990 to provide a safe haven for victims of natural or political upheavals in their home countries. About 250,000 are, like Chavez, natives of El Salvador, with Honduras and Haiti providing most of the remaining refugees.

The Biden administration recently expanded the program significantly, adding eligibility for about 325,000 Venezuelans and 1,600 people of Myanmar.

That’s a good start, but it doesn’t solve the core problem: After more than 30 years, the “T” in TPS still stands for “temporary.” The beneficiaries have jobs and homes here. They belong to American families and communities. But they have no guarantees for the future.

Attempts to create those guarantees have become ensnarled in the larger political battle over immigration policy, aggravated by the Republican campaign to blame the Biden administration for the upsurge of migrants reaching the southern border. And law-abiding, hardworking folks like Irma Chavez are caught in the crossfire.

To underline how precarious their status is, President Trump tried to cancel almost the entire TPS program through an executive order. His mean-spirited mission was thwarted by a blast of federal lawsuits — and ultimately by last fall’s election — but for TPS beneficiaries, the threat was very real. And they would have faced two terrible choices: return to their ravaged homelands, or live here in the shadows, undocumented and unprotected. As sociologist Cecilia Menjivar of UCLA told ProPublica: “It amounts to a social death in many ways.”

The rest of us would have lost something, too, if Trump had succeeded. According to the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California, TPS holders contribute more than $4.6 billion in taxes and more than $35.2 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.

They also contribute to the economic security — and political stability — of their home countries, developments that are vital to stemming the influx of future immigrant waves. Remittances from foreign workers contribute nearly $6 billion a year to the economy of El Salvador alone, subsidizing almost one-quarter of all households. Irma Chavez is a good example.

She helped her sister, Iris Franco, rebuild her home after a flood destroyed it. Moreover, writes the AP, “Chavez sends money to help cover their mother’s diabetes medication and food, which is out of reach for their mother, who earns $6 a day in the family bread business.”

“It changed our life, because we knew that we had my sister in that place, and so in whatever she could, she has helped us,” Franco said. “She has always paid attention to us.”

Under the law, Biden has a few options to help the TPS community. He can expand the program to other countries, as he did with Venezuela and Myanmar, and he can stretch the eligibility requirements to cover more refugees from countries like Haiti.

But to erase the “temporary” from TPS, he needs legislation. A bill did pass the House last month that would create a pathway to citizenship for the TPS stakeholders. The same bill would also make citizenship possible for “Dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children. And a companion measure would regularize the status of farm workers vital to the nation’s agricultural industry.

But since Democrats hold only 50 Senate seats, they would need 10 Republican votes to break a filibuster and pass any of these measures. And as the political climate on Capitol Hill continues to freeze over, prospects for bipartisan cooperation grow dimmer.

Meanwhile, political orphans like Irma Chavez get forgotten, and the threats of the Trump years left their mark.

“I learned a lot from that,” she says — “that we’re not safe in this country unless we are citizens.”

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at