On April 25, 2015, Nepal was rocked by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that devastated a region ill-equipped to deal with such a massive disaster. The aftershocks resulted in additional tremors, landslides, avalanches and destruction, further complicating recovery efforts. The United Methodist Committee on Relief estimates that nearly 9,000 people were killed. Many more were grievously injured and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.
A few months later, on June 24, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson designated Nepal for Temporary Protected Status for the next 18 months—until December 24, 2016.
Nepal joins 11 other countries who have been awarded TPS—making it an even dozen. Many of these countries, like Nepal, have suffered through enormous environmental catastrophes. Others, such as Liberia, have experienced horrific and fast-moving epidemics. Still others, such as Sudan and Syria, are engaged in vicious civil wars.
In all of these cases, it is nearly impossible for a national to return to his homeland without facing extreme danger or hardship. The governments of these countries have their resources stressed to the limit and cannot adequately care for or protect their citizens.
In 2014, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that 340,000 people were living in the United States under TPS designations. Nationals of countries with TPS are eligible to stay in the United States if:
- They have been continuously present in the U.S. since the effective date their country was designated (or re-designated) for TPS. This can apply to people who are students or tourists in the United States, and also to people who are living here without valid visas or documentation. In the case of Nepalese citizens, they would need to prove they were physically present in the United States before June 24 and have been continuously present since that date.
- They have no serious criminal record. Those who have been convicted of a felony or two or more misdemeanors in the U.S. are not eligible for TPS.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services lists three specific benefits for individuals with TPS:
- They cannot be removed from the United States; neither can they be deported nor detained by the DHS on the basis of their immigration status.
- They can work legally and are eligible to obtain an employment authorization document (EAD).
- They may be granted travel authorization.
While it’s too soon to tell how the JFON network will be affected by the addition of Nepal to the list of TPS nations, JFON is poised to respond decisively, with clinics located in the cities with the highest populations of Nepalese, including New York, Chicago, Houston, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Many of our JFON sites already have years of experience working with TPS cases. Haiti, for example, was granted TPS after the 2010 earthquake that killed over 100,000 people and adversely affected an estimated three million more.
The majority of Justice For Our Neighbors South Florida’s clients are Haitian, many of whom have applied for—and received—TPS protection.
“It is a great relief for them,” says Janet Horman, site attorney for JFON South Florida. “They can come out of the shadows and feel confident when they go look for a job.”
Although many TPS applicants have been living in the U.S. for years with undocumented status, there are others who are traveling or studying abroad when disaster hits. Often they cannot cannot return or find there is nothing to return to; their jobs, their homes, their families—everything from their former lives is gone.
“One of my clients worked in an orphanage,” recounts Janet. “She had a tourist visa. She was in Miami on vacation when the earthquake hit Haiti. All 54 children at the orphanage were killed.” Janet pauses a moment to allow the magnitude of this tragedy to sink in. “The enormity of this woman’s loss—“Janet pauses again, shaking her head. “Her grief was overwhelming.”
Haiti’s protected status has been extended twice—it currently ends in January 2016. Our government, Janet points out, has realized that Haiti needs U.S. dollars coming in if it has any hope of recovery.
But Haiti is far from the only country on the TPS list depending on money sent home by people living and working in the United States. The Pew Research Center found that El Salvador—first granted TPS status in 2001 and with an estimated 212,000 Salvadorans living in the U.S. under TPS status—receives a whopping 16.5 percent of its GDP from remittances.
Who gets on the TPS list and who stays on can be partly decided by political pressure, says Janet. The pressure can come from both outside and inside the United States. “The size of the community within the United States and its ability to educate the administration and members of congress may affect the designation of TPS for any particular country,” Janet explains. “There are also times when our government responds to demands for compassion.”
Although benefits and protections come with TPS, it is not an ideal situation. There is the uncertainty of not knowing if the country with TPS will be awarded re-designation. There is the frequent filing of papers, re-registering during each re-registration period, and the fee of $465. While individuals with TPS are allowed to travel outside of the U.S., the law is, Janet says, “very murky.” They must have additional travel documents and they must absolutely return by the allotted date or risk losing their status. Most attorneys advise their clients without green cards to forego travel outside the United States altogether.
Yet, in spite of its flaws and peculiarities, there is little doubt that the TPS program has provided a safe harbor for thousands of people and enabled many more to rebuild their lives here in the United States. For 15 years, the Temporary Protected Status policy has also given us many opportunities to be good neighbors and to prove ourselves a compassionate and humane people.