For nearly 20 years the Nicaraguan man worked long hours cleaning homes and buildings in South Florida. He started his own cleaning business 11 years ago and now employs a half dozen workers.
He thought he could soon begin to enjoy the fruits of his labor, but now all of that is at risk.
Like many Americans approaching retirement age, the 62-year-old planned to retire next year and start collecting his benefits. Then the Trump administration announced a week ago that it’s ending an immigration protection for him and 2,500 other Nicaraguans.
“I worked so many years contributing to Social Security, the retirement plan. Now I wanted to relax,” said the man, who spoke to el Nuevo Herald on condition of anonymity. “Now it seems I am going to lose everything that I earned all these years.”
For many years, the U.S. government allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from Central America and Haiti to remain with a work permit and other protections under its Temporary Protected Status program. TPS is for citizens of countries affected by natural disasters — like the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998 — or armed conflicts like El Salvador’s in the 1980s.
But the Trump administration announced last week that TPS for Nicaraguans would end in January 2019. The announcement spread fears to all of the more than 200,000 other immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti now protected under the designation.
The United States long ago became home for TPS beneficiaries. They work here, and many have bought homes here and given birth to children who are U.S. citizens. And they send billions of dollars to relatives back home each year.
Analysts say that TPS beneficiaries are now caught in the middle of a battle between foreign policy experts who understand the dire conditions in the countries affected, and a Trump administration broadly opposed to immigration.
“This cancellation represents a failure to recognize that TPS holders have been contributors not only to the well-being of many communities across the U.S., but it also fails to recognize some of the implications that some of these decisions are likely to have in the very countries of origin,” said Oscar Chacón, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas, which works with immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Chacón branded the TPS withdrawal for Nicaraguans as “disappointing” and “alarming” for the 57,000 Hondurans protected by the designation. There are also 195,000 Salvadorans and 50,000 Haitians who have TPS.
The Department of Homeland Security is expected to announce a decision on TPS for Haitians by Nov. 23. It has extended TPS for Hondurans for six months while it investigates whether conditions in the country merit a continuation. TPS for Salvadorans is due to expire in March, and the government must announce at least 60 days prior whether it will extend or cancel the benefit.
“The most powerful argument for keeping the Nicaraguan protection is not so much that Nicaragua is in the same situation as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala,” Chacón said, referring to the three countries that make up Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle, which was the focus of a high-level Trump administration meeting in Miami earlier this year. “It has a lot more to do with how much these communities are really deeply embedded in U.S. society. These are communities that have raised families here.”
María Elena Hernández came to South Florida from Nicaragua more than 20 years ago to visit her brothers. She legally extended her tourist visa, then watched on television as Hurricane Mitch devastated much of her country.
“That was terrible. I decided to stay, to help my country and my family from here. This is where I have my brothers, my nephews, my job, my life,” said Hernández, who has worked for nine years as a janitor at a local university. “This country is a world leader in human rights and criticizes countries that don’t respect them. And now it wants to send us to Nicaragua?”
While the presidents of Honduras and El Salvador have lobbied the Trump administration to extend TPS for their citizens — and the Haitian government followed suit recently — Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did not ask for an extension.
Some analysts said Ortega’s lack of action influenced the Trump administration to end TPS for Nicaraguans. Others believe that Washington picked on Nicaraguans because of their much lower number under TPS.
“The government of my country did not speak out for us, left us alone. And that shows that we’re not important to them,” said Hernández, an official in a local branch of the Service Employees International Union.
The U.S. government views Ortega’s rule as anti-democratic but has invested billions of dollars in efforts to improve life in Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti, three of the most vulnerable countries in the hemisphere.
El Salvador and Honduras have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Chacón said that in Honduras, one woman is murdered every 16 hours.
“These are countries that the U.S. government should, and has been working to, stabilize,” said Daniel Restrepo, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was an adviser on Latin America policy in the Obama administration and part of the decision-making process on TPS for Haitians and several extensions.
“This decision in a lot of ways is one where the U.S. government has to decide … whether we want to continue working in partnership with these countries; whether we want to do something that would be further destabilizing to those countries where you would have displaced workers, where you would have increased pressure on governance institutions that are already overmatched,” Restrepo said. “Those are some of the stakes that are at play here.”
Meanwhile, Nicaraguans with TPS say they are desperately considering the few options available to them and are praying for a positive solution.
“We did not expect this because they extended this program so many times that we’re practically native. My daughter came when she was really small and studied here. She speaks more English than Spanish,” said a 63-year-old Nicaraguan woman who lives in Little Havana. “We have nothing in Nicaragua.”
Some U.S. Congress members from South Florida are backing a bill that would allow TPS beneficiaries to apply for permanent residency.
For some TPS beneficiaries, like the Nicaraguan man who owns a cleaning company, the only option is to remain in the United State illegally.
“I don’t want to break the law, but everything I have is here. The government is forcing me to join the ranks of the illegals, to live in the shadows,” he said.
Others, like the woman who lives in Little Havana, are considering moving to another country.
But countries like Canada — where thousands of Haitians arrived this summer because of fears their TPS designation would be withdrawn — have already warned Nicaraguans and other TPS beneficiaries that they would not be welcome.
Canadian parliament member Randy Boissonnault is scheduled to visit Miami on Sunday to meet with members of the Central American community.
“We do not want community members to make important life-changing decisions based on false information that might be circulated via social media or through erroneous verbal communication,” Boissonnault said.
For others, like labor activist Hernández, her only option is a risky return to Nicaragua.
“I would leave because I always follow the laws of any country where I live,” she said. “In this country, where there’s freedom of expression, I learned to speak out when I see an injustice. I am not going to be silent in Nicaragua, and could wind up in jail.”
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