Advocates and political supporters are wondering whether the Biden administration can keep focus on much-needed immigration reform even as Russia invades Ukraine.
Obviously, many pressing issues will be sidelined as the United States makes Russian leader Vladimir Putin a priority. But right now, immigration policy is a pot boiling over, and what is happening in Ukraine directly affects everything.
Consider that President Biden promised to tackle immigration on the campaign trail, squaring off with a sitting president who turned immigration policy into a harsh political game.
Since Biden took office, the pandemic and ailing economy led his short list, and immigration reform fell faster than the Republicans’ many failed attempts at getting rid of Obamacare. Nonetheless, advocates including American’s Voice, FWD.us and Community Change Action, to name a few, continue to push the White House to make good on that campaign promise, starting with renewing the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for immigrants from certain countries.
Temporary Protected Status was established by Congress in 1990 and provided to nationals of several countries living in the United States who were affected by natural disasters or wars in their native country.
TPS currently covers a total of 12 countries, including three in Central America and one in South America – El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the latter a recent addition to the list. TPS allows nationals from those countries to legally live and work in the United States for a certain amount of time and is renewable every 18 months. In order to qualify, one has to be a national of the country designated as a TPS country and have been “continuously present” and residing in the United States since the effective date of the designation, and not be considered inadmissible to the United States for criminal or national security issues – in other words, be a law-abiding resident.
Additionally, you have to register in order to be considered to be granted TPS.
The largest number of TPS recipients holders – 55,000 — live in California. Of the 330,000 TPS beneficiaries nationwide, a majority are Salvadoran nationals, followed by Hondurans.
The Trump administration attempted to end TPS for all beneficiaries because Donald Trump came into office with a defined hardline on immigration, and considered this program to be a free ride for undocumented immigrants to stay indefinitely in the United States. He was blocked by several lawsuits filed by groups ranging from the NAACP to the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland.
Last August, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the extension of the TPS registration periods from 180 days to up to 18 months for new applicants, but that extension doesn’t include renewing the actual program.
To be sure, Vice President Kamala Harris’ presence last month at the inauguration of the president of Honduras was seen by the administration of Xiomara Hernández as a good omen for TPS renewal for Central American compatriots in the United States eligible for the program.
All well and good … but, but, BUT!
Keep in mind nothing was moving on renewing the program. Not that anything has to move necessarily when it comes to TPS renewal. All it takes is the stroke of a pen from the president. More than 30 legislators weighed in, including both senators from California – Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla.
Each of the 30 lawmakers signed a letter that in part stated, “TPS designations and re-designations would provide critical protections for eligible beneficiaries and enable them to support basic needs of loved ones back home and invest in safer alternatives to irregular migration.” The letter continued, “It is our assessment that the severe damage caused by back-to-back hurricanes just over one year ago, combined with extreme drought conditions, and the social and economic crises exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, warrant such an action by the Administration.”
It’s worth noting that the legislators requested to extend a TPS designation to Guatemala, as they consider that country to be experiencing the same sorts of hardships that were the reasons behind TPS for the neighboring Central American countries that already have TPS. No dice yet. The bottom line is, right now there is no serious movement in Washington, D.C., related to immigration reform. Not for Latinos, that’s for sure.
And the Russian invasion and potential for World War III will not fall off the shortlist anytime soon.
And then, bam! The Biden administration showered Ukraine with TPS status. Only Ukrainian nationals residing in the United States are eligible for TPS. Unfortunately that means the status will not cover anyone fleeing Ukraine now. There are however, significant communities of Ukrainians in the U.S. – including approximately 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants in California. It is estimated that about 30,000 Ukrainians nationwide would be eligible for TPS.
No one contends that Ukraine didn’t deserve a TPS designation. However, immigration advocates point out that this lightning-fast designation by President Biden – granted after a week of war – smacked of a double standard.
When it comes to TPS protection, it sure looks like people of color have to wait. And wait. Countries such as Cameroon and Ethiopia with large populations of color are still waiting, and that doesn’t count El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, with each of these war-torn nations still waiting on the renewal. No country has received a TPS designation as fast as Ukraine has.
“It is critical that TPS is not politicized to preference some countries over others,” Senator Robert Menéndez (D-N.J.), recently said in a statement.
“As I have said before, Black migrants are too often excluded when these important decisions are made,” he added. “I will continue to urge the Biden Administration to utilize TPS for countries experiencing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or extraordinary conditions that prevent people from safely returning home.”
Neither the actual Ukraine war nor the Supreme Court nomination hearings deter the administration from making a decision on TPS for Ukrainian nationals.
“I’m confident the president will renew TPS (for El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua),” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) at a March 8 forum with members of the D.C. chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
TPS for them expires at the end of the year. Sure, there’s time, but as the saying goes, time flies and waits for no one, including those in dire straits – unless you’re a few shades lighter than everyone else in the waiting room.
Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C., and with the Washington bureau of the South Florida Media Network at Florida International University. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and has a Master’s from the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.