News & Politics

Here’s Why the Fate of TPS Has Such Major Implications for DC

The policy could have a huge impact on the Salvadoran community—and Washington as a whole.

The National TPS Alliance rallies in New York City on October 8 (Photo: Xochilt Sanchez , Organizer at CARECEN LA)

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On Wednesday, October 3,  Xiomara Cruz, a 48-year-old housekeeper, was screaming and jumping for joy in her Silver Spring house.

“‘What’s going on? Why are you screaming? Are you OK?’ my son and my mother asked when they heard me,” she says with a laugh. “And so I told them the news.”

The news, which Cruz had just received via text, was that a federal judge had temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people from Sudan, El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua.

It was a ruling with important implications for the Washington region. The majority of immigrants under TPS—roughly two thirds of them—hail from El Salvador. The largest number of Salvadoran TPS recipients—about 32,000 people—live in the DC area, the only metropolitan area in the country where Salvadorans make up a majority of the Hispanic population. They were set to lose their legal status next September, putting them at risk of deportation.

Cruz is among them. She got here in 2001, when temporary protections were first granted to Salvadorans following two devastating earthquakes in her home country. The American life she’d built since then got upended in January, when the administration announced that it would let Salvadorans’ TPS status expire. The ruling on October 3 out of Northern California was the first piece of good news she’d received in a while.

“After so much anxiety, so much uncertainty, after so many bad news, one after the other, this felt like the best present we could have received,” she says. “Stability.”

Nelsy Umanzor is a 41-year-old hospitality worker. Another TPS holder from El Salvador based in Silver Spring, he was also happy about the favorable ruling (“My social media feed blew up that day,” he says). But he wasn’t gushing. “The real celebration will come when we get permanent residence,” he says. “Because TPS will always be temporary.”

On October 10, he traveled to Baltimore to join a rally of the National TPS Alliance, a group of approximately 1,000 TPS holders seeking a permanent solution to put an end to their legal limbo. For both Umanzor and Cruz, there’s no plan B to Silver Spring. If they lose their protected status and aren’t forcibly deported, they plan to stay here with their families, and join the 400,000 undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows in the DC area.

Nelsy Umanzor poses with his wife, Rosa Nelia Larios, in Rockville when they first arrived in 2000.

The October 3 ruling notwithstanding (and despite the immigrant community’s collective sigh of relief), TPS remains in jeopardy. In an unsurprising move, the Justice Department has already appealed the decision. It is likely that the TPS case will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court, where a recently solidified conservative majority is expected to side with the administration. 

“I think for right now, the community is really clear that this is one victory,” says Abel Nuñez, Executive Director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in DC. “They’re extremely happy and hopeful, but they understand that it’s not the end game. If this ever makes it to the Supreme Court, [Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s] vote could be a deciding factor.”

An eventual dissolution of TPS would have a huge impact on TPS holders and their children, many of whom are American-born US citizens. DC’s economy would also take a non-negligible hit.

Nuñez predicts one very specific outcome: idle construction sites. In this area, 20 percent of all construction workers are TPS beneficiaries, he says.

“Most of the big companies will lose those employees, and these are employees that have been with the companies for a very long time,” Nuñez says. “They are not laborers; they are high-skilled workers at a time when there’s a shortage of construction workers. So, just think of all the construction that’s happening in the region. All of that will really come to a halt.”

According to Nuñez, a reduced workforce would force companies to cut back on support staff (like human resources), and other roles that tend to be filled by non-immigrant, US born employees.

Steve Fuller, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and a preeminent authority on the local economy, is also wary of the repercussions that could come with disenfranchising TPS holders. He’s previously sounded the alarm bell in this magazine about DC’s slow-growing economy, which has ranked among the lowest-performing out of the US’s 15 largest metropolitan areas in recent years. In that context, losing the contributions of the region’s TPS holders is something he thinks “we can’t afford.” 

According to Fuller, TPS holders’ labor-force participation rate ranges from 80 to 88 percent, which is a full 20 percentage points higher than the average in the Washington area.

“If you lost [TPS holders] it wouldn’t bring the economy to its knees, but they play an important role,” he says. “The fact that they are working, and earning, and spending makes them an economic asset. And they do work that citizens or domestic residents aren’t eager to do.”

Losing the TPS community would also complicate the region’s demographical outlook. Fuller says that since 2013, the Washington area has continuously lost residents of all ages to other regions in the US. “The only source of adult population growth is international migration,” he says. “So that makes it more important for the Washington area to retain this workforce because it’s leaking out, it’s going to other places. And lower-wage jobs are particularly difficult to replace.”

As Fuller points out, one doesn’t have to go too far back to find a precedent for the kind of vicious cycle immigration crackdowns can lead to. In 2007, Prince William County adopted a policy that let police check the immigration status of anyone they detained who they suspected might be undocumented. The policy drove away thousands of illegal, as well as some legal, immigrants who left in search of friendlier jurisdictions, and the community suffered as a result. Businesses were driven to the brink of bankruptcy. According to Fuller, entire shopping centers had to shut down.

The TPS situation could be even messier because of a simple but important peculiarity—if TPS is terminated, everyone would lose their status on the exact same day, September 9, 2019Cruz, the exuberant housekeeper, says she doesn’t want to think about what’s to come. She’d rather savor this moment and the small victory that the judicial resistance to Trump delivered.

In Spanish, she keeps using a word that you won’t find in the dictionary: “TPSianos” (which she pronounces tepesianos). It’s a term she uses to refer to her community. They’re not really salvadoreños. They’re not really americanos. They’re ‘TPSianos.’

“I don’t even have words to imagine the future for us TPSianos,” she says. “Solo Dios sabe.”

Only God knows.

Lautaro Grinspan
Editorial Fellow