Maria Elena Hernandez, a 57-year-old immigrant from Nicaragua, stands in the apartment she shares with her family. Hernandez has been living in South Florida with TPS status for the past 19 years, which is now set to expire in January 2019. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS)

The US has been home for nearly 20 years. Now Trump is expelling these Nicaraguans

MIAMI — 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 half a dozen workers.

The 62-year-old planned to retire next year and start collecting his benefits. But now all of that is at risk.

The Trump administration announced bad news a week ago: 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 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. 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 announcement spread fears to all of the more than 200,000 other immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti now protected under TPS.

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.

“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 Chacon, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas, which works with immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Department of Homeland Security is expected to announce a decision on TPS for Haitians by Nov. 23. It has extended TPS protection 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 if it will extend or cancel the benefit. Some U.S. Congress members from South Florida are backing a bill that would allow TPS beneficiaries to apply for permanent residence.

“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,” Chacon said, referring to the three countries that make up Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle. “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.”

Maria Elena Hernandez 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 Hernandez, 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?”

El Salvador and Honduras have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Chacon said that in Honduras, one woman is murdered every 16 hours.

“These are countries that the U.S. government should, and have been working to, stabilize,”  “This decision in a lot of ways is one where the U.S. government has to decide,” said Daniel Restrepo, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, “… 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.”

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