It’s been almost two decades since Orlando Lopez fled the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Mitch in Honduras.
The former farmer’s crops were wiped out, leaving the then 36-year-old without a home, a non-existent agriculture business and four children to feed.
“I lost everything; nothing was recoverable and nothing was certain,” he said. “That’s why I came to the U.S. But now I feel like I’m going through yet another hurricane — this time, an emotional one.”
Lopez was one of thousands from Central America who sought refuge in the United States in 1998 after the storm devastated the region. Though most arrived illegally, they were made exempt from deportation after Congress established a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program in 1990 to protect foreign nationals from being deported to their homelands amid instability and perilous conditions caused by armed conflict or natural disasters.
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Since then, about 320,000 TPS protections have been renewed at regular intervals— but now, decisions on whether the immigrants still need to be shielded from deportation are expected to be made as early as Monday for Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans, and Thanksgiving Day for Haitians.
This past Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security saying extreme conditions that once gripped the countries no longer justify the protection of those in the program, many of whom have been in the United States for almost 20 years.
Since Tillerson’s letters, immigrant organizations across South Florida have been fielding calls and messages from worry-stricken TPS recipients or their fearful family members. About 44,800 TPS holders live in Florida, according to the Center for Migration Studies of New York.
Activist Francisco Portillo was in his Little Havana office Saturday afternoon trying to calm anxious callers.
“We have gotten about 20 to 25 calls today. All we can tell people is that we have to wait until the government makes a formal announcement on Monday,” Portillo said. “But with this uncertainty the community is very worried. There are people with TPS who have lived here for two decades, have businesses. Many more are homeowners. They were expecting a permanent solution, an immigration reform, not this.”
Administration officials have said the return of tens of thousands of migrants could be a boon for Central American nations and Haiti, because their citizens will return with job skills, democratic values and savings.
They also note that the protection was never meant to be permanent and that ending it would be consistent with the administration’s aim of reducing immigration and complying with legal restrictions that have been loosely enforced in the past.
After so many years in the United States, many of the TPS recipients have sunk deep roots. According to America’s Voice, an immigration reform group, many of the TPS recipients in Florida are construction supervisors and home healthcare professionals, some of them currently helping with hurricane recovery efforts in Florida and Texas. They’re also, the group says, parents to nearly 275,000 U.S. citizen children.
Forcing the return of 50,000 people to Haiti would disrupt the fragile recovery there, exacerbate the food, housing, and public health crises, and potentially destabilize the new government, according to the Journal on Migration and Human Security.
Maria Rodriguez, director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, says if the special status isn’t renewed, it would encourage those with grounded lives to shift to the shadows.
“People are biting their nails, very anxious. The government thinks that these people can just leave but for most of them going back to their country is not an option,” Rodriguez said.“This is more than absurd, it’s tragic.”
On Saturday, Haitian advocates took to social media, asking supporters to tweet and share a video clip of President Trump’s visit to Little Haiti while a candidate. He told Haitians at the time: “I really want to be your greatest champion.”
The promise was made days before Haiti’s southern coast was raked by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, which advocates have cited among their reasons for extending TPS for Haitians.
As for Orlando Lopez, he said he, like many of his friends and relatives, has fallen into depression at the thought of being uprooted.
“I haven’t been able to go to work. I can’t think. I can’t focus,” he said. “After 20 years of building a life, starting from the ground up, owning a home and a business — sending me back would be sending me to die.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report