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Temporary Protected Status Keeps Family Living in Limbo

Posted: Apr 12, 2012

San Francisco--The one thing Godofredo Vasquez, a student at San Francisco State University, realized soon after arriving in the United States at the age of eleven was that his new home is sadly temporary. A native of El Salvador, he is among some 350,000 immigrants in this country who remain under the legal limbo of Temporary Protected Status.

“It’s confusing, unclear, and disappointing,” says Vasquez, 22, of his current status. “If TPS ends, the only way I would go back is if they physically come get me. My life is here.”

Temporary Protected Status is granted to individuals from countries determined by the Department of Homeland Security as unprepared for the return of nationals due to temporary conditions resulting from war, epidemics or a natural disaster. They must already be in the United States, however, at the time of designation.

How they entered isn’t taken into consideration.

In the case of Vasquez and his family, it was the 2001 earthquake that decimated El Salvador that offered them the chance at this semi-legality. Having arrived illegally through Arizona, they eventually found their way to Antioch, east of San Francisco. They applied for TPS immediately after the earthquake.

“Does TPS itself lead to a green card? No,” says David Leopold with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “When [their] TPS is terminated, [they don’t] have a status.”

That uncertainty hovers over the 217,000 Salvadorans that, like Vasquez, live in the United States under TPS. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently extended the country’s designation for an additional 18 months, with an expiration date of Sept.9, 2013. Many wonder whether that date could mark the end of their sojourn here.

“We love our country, and I want to go visit,” says Vasquez. “But the only way we would go back, to live, is if we got kicked out.”

Remaining here, meanwhile, doesn’t come without its challenges.

“People don’t know that [TPS] is out there,” he explains. “The first time I tried to go to community college, they told me no. Getting loans was extremely difficult.”

Vasquez came to the United States with his younger sister and his mother when he was 11 years old. His older sister, Alma, arrived a year earlier with their father. The transition has been especially tough for his mother and older sister.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” says Alma, who arrived at 17. “It was hard because I never went to school or took English classes in the U.S.”

Adding to the difficulty was the family’s temporary protected status, which Alma says seemed to render them second-class citizens. “You can’t have stability.”

In order to maintain TPS, the Vasquez’ must pay roughly $500 in application fees, and file paperwork every 16 months. Whenever they renew their status, there is a four-month waiting period for a new card, even if the current card is expired. This almost always causes problems at work.

“I had problems three or four times,” recalls Alma. “When I was working at Wells Fargo, I had to leave for four months.”

Family members all say they’ve had similar experiences.

Vasquez’ mother, also named Alma, says coming to the U.S. made her feel “as if I had lost my memory.” Not speaking the language, and with no relatives to speak of, the only work available was picking up garbage after sporting events, a far cry from the office job she held in El Salvador.

“There is some fine print that says that an employer cannot suspend you while you’re waiting for your card,” says Godofredo. “We tell them go to the site, it’s on the site, and they would say they don’t have time to read it.”

The family eventually spoke to a lawyer, who told them to “print it out, underline it and show it” to employers.” Most, says Vasquez, still refuse to acknowledge their right to work.

With one year left in college, Vasquez says he is unsure of what lies ahead. While many of his peers are beginning to make plans for their future, he continues to hold out hope for passage of the federal DREAM Act, which would create a path toward citizenship for millions of undocumented students.

“I hope for it, but in reality, I highly doubt it,” he says. “My goal is to get a job and eventually get sponsored.” Whether or not his future employer will recognize his “less-than-protected” status is another question.

Graf is a student at San Francisco State University. His reporting is part of a special ‘Stories From the Diaspora’ series profiling the lives of immigrants across California and beyond.

Image provided by Shutterstock.com

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