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Journey(s) for Justice: How Temporary Protected Status Recipients are Challenging Misinformation and Marginalization

Updated: 4 days ago

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a legal status designated to foreign individuals whose country experienced a natural disaster or civil unrest that left the country in financial ruin. It allowed undocumented individuals in the U.S. from those countries to legally live and work here for a designated period of time. Salvadorans were the first to receive TPS through the Immigration Act of 1990. Rather than admit their responsibility in the Salvadoran civil war that forced many to leave their country and remedy it by providing asylum to them, the U.S. government created this temporary solution that would defer deportation and allow Salvadorans to live in the U.S. legally until June 1992. Once TPS ended, the government granted them a two year extension through the Deferred enforced departure Program, DED which ended in 1994, under the Clinton administration. Many Salvadorans who first received TPS eventually gained residency through the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, NACARA post-1997 but a new group of Salvadorans were arriving to the United States, along with Hondurans and Nicaraguans that did not qualify. While U.S. immigration policies viewed these immigrants as economic immigrants, they were also a result of  physical, legal, and political consequences of the 1980s revolutions in the Central American region. In 1998 and 2001, temporary protected status reemerged as a lifeline for Honduran and Nicaraguans, and then Salvadorans living in the U.S. due to Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and two deadly earthquakes in 2001. Since then, almost 400,000 individuals from more than fifteen countries had or currently have this designation.

By 2017, however, the TPS community was at risk of deportation after President Trump announced the termination of the program. As a result, mainly Salvadoran and Honduran TPS recipients, Tpsianos, came together to create the National TPS Alliance, a coalition of local committees that work to mobilize against this decision and educate the U.S. public about TPS. Over the past 5 years, Tpsianos have lobbied, organized assemblies, marches, and caravans to highlight their presence and contribution in the country. Their main goals are to make their bodies and their desires to stay visible, and to counter the misinformation of the TPS community perpetuated by President Trump and anti-immigrant organizations and communities.

Who are TPSianos?


At the beginning of January in a closed meeting, President Trump called countries with TPS, shithole countries. According to sources present at the meeting, Trump’s reaction was to a proposal that sought to cut the visa lottery in half and instead support TPS countries and others.  Just a month before this statement was made, Trump announced the cancellation of TPS for Haiti. Several weeks later, the termination of TPS for El Salvador followed. The shithole comment, although denied, was no surprise as it follows a long tradition of anti-immigrant rhetoric and American exceptionalism.

          

Anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States has existed since its nascency as a country but the last two decades have especially targeted individuals of Latin American descent. Anthropologist Leo R. Chavez has labeled this targeting as a result of the supposed Latino Threat. According to Chavez, U.S. media political specialists have framed undocumented immigrants, specifically Latin American immigrants, as villains that threaten the U.S. economy, society, and culture. Latinxs’ cultural enclaves in urban areas like Los Angeles and Miami as well as their supposed lack of desire to learn English differentiates them from early 20th century immigrants, including Irish and Italians who are said to have assimilated to U.S. culture. These social, cultural, and linguistic enclaves, while physical in space, also move with immigrants, engulfing them as they search to set roots down in the country. Chavez argues that since the cessation of Mexican lands to the United States through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, anti-immigrant rhetoric has seen immigratin and integration of not only Mexican Americans but all Latinxs as an invasion or a reconquest. This rhetoric, this Latino Threat narrative that brings in fear and paranoia together against Latinx immigrants has shaped immigration policies and approaches to criminalization of this community.


Since Trump’s candidacy for president, he has used this type of rhetoric to unify anti-immigrant communities. He ran a campaign and later an administration seeking to  create a wall between the U.S-Mexico border, ramp up deportations, and criticize sanctuary cities for providing haven to “criminal” immigrants. He has associated Salvadorans, and Central Americans in general, with crime. The Mara salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, born in the streets of Los Angeles, became his prime example of U.S. immigration policies allowing violent criminals to arrive as helpless immigrants. As president, his rhetoric about the risks posed by immigrants increased; on May 16, 2018, during a roundtable discussion about California’s sanctuary laws, Trump referred to deportees as animals. While his administration justified these words to refer to MS-13 and not all immigrants, the metaphor ultimately dehumanizes all immigrants.This, of course, had large implications for current immigrant policies toward immigrant communities, like TPS.


The National TPS Alliance has sought, however, to counter this racist discourse and demonstrate their contributions to society. Even before Trump announced the end of the TPS program and before the official creation of the National TPS Alliance, two organizations who have direct connections with the community, Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles (CARECEN-LA) and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) linked up with Cecilia Menjivar, a Salvadoran sociologist who has an extensive portfolio on researching immigrant communities, including TPS, to write a report about the TPS communities’ profile and contributions to the United States. Based on this 2017 report that interviewed more than 2,000 TPSianos, the majority of TPS holders work and pay taxes; almost half of the respondents have furthered their education, and around 30% own their homes and volunteer at “civic organizations, committees, or community groups in the 12 months prior to the survey.” Due to the legal procedures to renew their TPS every eighteen months, TPS holders have clean criminal records. These observations challenge Trump’s rhetoric about all immigrants. By participating and volunteering to recruit and interview other TPSianos for the survey, the community countered Trump’s racist remarks and demonstrated that in fact they are “de facto citizens and active members of their communities but lack full de jure recognition.” Once the Trump Administration announced the official end of the TPS program, TPSianos continued to rely on tackling misinformation through cultural acts and political actions to save TPS and demand a pathway to residency.


In 2020, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network asked if I could write the caravans to expose a larger audience to the political work of the TPS community. I gladly accepted as part of my commitment to supporting immigrant rights and social justice. Throughout 2020 and 2021, I interviewed 20 Salvadoran and Honduran TPSianos, most of whom rode a bus across the country called La Libertad in 2018 and 2020. I followed their journey on social media and participated in some of their local stops (New York City and New Jersey) and attended the marches that culminated their Journey for Justice journey. These experiences and the stories TPSianos shared are the basis of this paper.  


Journey For Justice

In 2018, leaders of the National TPS Alliance gathered to discuss strategy on overturning the Trump Administration's decision to end TPS. Following a tradition in the immigrant and civil rights movement, the Alliance came up with the idea of a caravan – a bus driving around the country. Some TPS leaders witnessed the 2012 Undocubus that rode from Phoenix, AZ to Charlotte, NC with the message, "Sin Papeles, Sin Miedo," “No papers, no fear" and were inspired. Others knew about the Freedom Rides of 1961 organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and the impact it had on the civil rights movements. The riders, called freedom riders, rode on interstate buses from Washington D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi to challenge segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals. They put their lives at risk to make racist violence visible and garner cross-racial solidarity in their fight against jim crow laws.


This historical legacy influenced the TPS alliance as they pondered how to counter the ignorance of the U.S. public when it came to TPS and immigrant issues in general. They agreed on riding a big colorful bus around the country to make their presence known. In the first caravan in 2018, the bus called La Libertad – drove across 32 states, 70 cities in a matter of 12 weeks. They had more than 50 people throughout the journey who called themselves justice riders. Throughout their journey, they shared their personal stories of wanting to stay in the U.S. to denounce U.S. structural oppression in their lives, specifically ending the program and not allowing them a pathway to residency. Their Caravana por la Justicia (Journey for Justice) included consciousness-raising efforts through information sessions with TPS holders and political action, such as holding press conferences and lobbying local governments to demand permanent residency. Using cultural tools like the bus, La Libertad, songs and sharing their testimonies, justice riders demonstrated their political fervor for residency.


Performing Praxis: Music, La Libertad and Popular Education



On their journey across the United States, justice riders used cultural tools to spread their message. Music was by far the medium used the most to explain their current situation and their desires for residency. During their NYC stop in 2018, I witnessed how the justice riders repurposed the chorus of “El Africano,” a highly popular merengue song. The Spanish language song is about sexual conquest of a hypersexualized black men to a young woman. TPS riders chose to transform the meaning of the song to demonstrate their conquest for residency. The TPS version goes: “Mami, el gobierno esta muy loco, nos quita el TPS, no se lo que le pasa. ¿Mami que será lo que quiere el pueblo? Residencia.” (Mami, the government is crazy, it took away TPS, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. Mami, what do you think the people want? Residency!) While the chorus expresses some confusion for the government’s action in terminating TPS, this small but powerful change declared a continuous fight to obtain what the TPS community (people) deserve: Residency.


TPSianos and their allies both in the United States and El Salvador have also composed songs about being a TPSiano, an immigrant and the hardships that come with, and encouragement and solidarity to continue fighting for residency. Each song speaks to the struggles inherent in being an immigrant – the fear of family separation, of finding a job, and of belonging in their “second homeland.” The “Tpsiano Power Song” composed by Abdulio Funes from a local TPS committee in Southern California emphasizes their place in U.S. society, a place where they left their youth and where they raise their families. It also discusses their ongoing fight against deportation and the power they have to save TPS. In particular, the song discusses the 2019 lawsuit Ramos v. Nielsen which challenged the termination of TPS for Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador for being unconstitutional because it was based on intentional discrimination. The lawsuit eventually allowed for an injunction which the song proudly explains was due to their organizing and unifying spirit. Similarly, the Salvadoran corrido called “Corrido de los Tepecianos 2020” by the group “Los Sánchez Suenan” also praises the organizing efforts of the TPS community while offering transnational solidarity. These songs and more played during each stop the bus made on their journey and justice riders felt especially connected to those songs because the songs were composed by and for them.


Along with the critical reflection these songs make as well as centering the agency of TPSianos, the bus that carried them also served as an instrument for resisting the government’s refusal to acknowledge their right to stay in the United States as lawful residents. Images of family separation and deportation expresses their fears but the bus also exuded joy, love, and hope. The images of happy families together, of communities signing, of individuals protesting for a just cause served as mirror to what these committees experienced and what they hope to keep – the freedom to keep families together, to feel job in community, and to stand up for what they believe. In fact, those images were exactly what justice riders were doing. While they may not have been with their families on the bus, they joined the caravan for their families and used music as a medium to protest.


These artistic expressions evoke Paulo Freire’s idea of critical consciousness raising through ‘reading the world.’ The images tell a story that many TPSianos and immigrants in general can relate to. Several interviews expressed that they identified with a particular image, especially ones about separation of families or deportation of workers. They saw themselves reflected in the artwork and some even used these images as a starting point for their testimonies. The bus as well as the music has served as a popular education tool that allows for reflection and dialogue to ensue between TPSianos and their audience members. It has also created a space for them to establish their own truths about immigrants in the United States.  La Libertad served as a counterhegemonic narrative of TPSiano experiences where they are not criminals or job stealers but hard-working individuals with families who deserve joy and happiness. They took this narrative throughout the country and amplified it by sharing their testimonies and their message of permanent residency.


2020 Caravan: “En Camino a la Justicia, Vamos con Todo”

Just six months after the national shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tpsianos once again decided to pause their routine – take time off work (or quit as one TPSiano had to do) and leave their families for a while – to join the 2020 Journey for Justice Caravan. Their message for residency was more urgent this time. Their 2019 lawsuit Ramos v. Nielsen, which challenged the termination of TPS for Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador, provided an injunction which led to the extension of TPS for every 9 months, but there was no guarantee that the nine circuit courts would rule in their favor. For that reason, a group of TPS holders and their children chose to take the risk and make the journey in caravan once more to demand residency in the midst of a global pandemic. This time the message of permanent residency was flanked by two other messages: to motivate people to vote against hate, and to educate people against the threat of the covid-19. These messages painted the exterior of the bus La Libertad and were nestled in the overall motto of that year’s caravan: on the road to justice, let’s give it our all.




COVID is Real

The height of the pandemic forced all non-essential businesses to shut down but most TPS recipients could not escape the pandemic. While they were seen as outsiders in the legal world, they were very much essential in the everyday survival of the cities and towns they lived in. When Salvadoran and Honduran TPSianos chose to join the 2020 caravan, they knew they were putting their lives at risk to spread the message that Covid is real but the amount of misinformation plaguing the Latinx community and the high death rate in that community prompted them to make this sacrifice.

Xiomara Cruz, a TPS holder and mother of 2 TPS holders shared the importance of educating people against covid. “We talked about covid-19. That it really exists and if we don’t follow health regulations – wash hands, wear a mask, social distancing – that we can get sick. We also know that 130,000 tpsianos are in the front lines, and many of them are getting sick. So that’s why one of our objectives is to talk about covid-19.” Justice riders knew that the Latinx community is twice as likely as non-Latinxs to be infected with the virus and to die from it. This is due in part because of their high-exposure jobs, as Cruz mentioned, and the high percentage of individuals with underlying health problems, but also because of the misinformation spreading on social media that swayed people away from getting vaccinated. Concernsabout safety and the vaccine’s effectiveness, alleged alternative treatments, fear of deportation or family separation, and even doubt that the virus was deadly led many individuals to forgo Covid-19 vaccinations.


The bus itself served as a constant reminder of the effects of the virus. An image of a person connected to a ventilator and surrounded by masked doctors covers the bottom half of the bus exterior. Next to this image is another example of misinformation as an unmasked man is yelling at a masked man with a poster that says “Covid is a lie.” While at each stop, the justice riders would remind their audience about the risks of covid, the bus served as moving instrument that would send this message even when driving.


Stephanie Zacatares, a child of former TPS holders explained that one of the main reason she joined the 2020 caravan was to counter this misinformation and inform her community about the truth of COVID-19: “I’m an immune-compromised person, I have asthma, but I understand that this movement, and, you know, the livelihoods of so many people in my community are on the line. So I think now more than ever, it is vital to actually take our message to the streets and to different cities around the country.” Although Zacatares no longer faced the uncertainty of her parents being deported and even though she is immunocompromised, she felt the responsibility to use her privilege to speak up on behalf of her community. While many family members and friends of these justice riders may have called them “crazy” for risking their lives, they believed the sacrifice was worth it to save lives through education.


Vote Against Hate

In explaining the impact of her time in the caravan, Zacatares explained that despite the global pandemic, she had to participate because, “at the end of the day, we only have a few more months until thousands of families may face deportation.” This urgency prompted the second message: vote against hate. Since it was an election year, TPSianos sought to promote voting for U.S. citizens. Sll of the justice riders I interviewed expressed that they never explicitly said to vote against Trump or to vote on democratic lines but to vote against hate, against family separation, violence, and racism. One Honduran justice rider, Mardoel, compared the vote to a weapon: “voting is like a weapon that citizens have. Voting can’t kill anyone but it can replace someone that is causing harm to the immigrant community” TPS recipients understood that in order to gain residency they had to work with the legal tools available and while they themselves couldn’t vote, their adult children, their us. Citizen family members and their friends could.


The youngest justice rider, a 10-year-old girl, also shared the same sentiment. In an interview with her mother present she expressed the following: “every person who can vote, should vote because we really need a president that doesn't care what race, what color we are, just loves us equally. And like we are not different from each other, you know. And that they choose against hate and against family separations because we don't want that, because families are supposed to be together the whole time.” For this young justice rider, the caravan was especially important because even though she had to attend virtual classes and do homework on the bus after long days of driving, press conferences, and activities, she prioritized sharing her testimony for the public and news media because she feared family separation. This sentiment was the norm. Many justice riders took time off of work, did school work on the bus, and temporarily left their families to fight to secure their future in the U.S.


Justice for Central America

Two years after the 2020 caravan ended in November, the Biden Administration redesignated TPS for Haitian, Syrian, and South Sudanese recipients. Other countries like Sudan, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and Venezuela received a TPS designation as well in 2022. While this news caused much joy for the TPS community as a whole because it was a testament to their organizing efforts, many TPSianos from the National TPS Alliance wondered “what about Central America?” Salvadoran and Hondurans comprise over eighty percent of TPS population yet they, along with Nicaraguans did not receive a redesignation at that time.


The National TPS Alliance publicly denounced the Biden Administration for ignoring Central America in both the TPS community but also the region as a whole. When Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala in June 2021, her message to the Guatemalan people and the Central American region as a whole was not to migrate to the United States. This message ignores the historical context that led to many migrants from Central America to the United States, including TPS recipients. It ignores the U.S. government’s role in perpetuating the militarization of the region, the deaths and disappearances of the 1970s and 1980s. While these events happened more than fifty years ago, it impacts migration still today. Gang violence, poverty, and climate change are some of the main reasons for immigration. Yet, the Biden Administration has not acknowledged this fact. Moreover, Biden ignored TPS recipients’ call for a TPS extension for their communities and a new designation of TPS for Guatemala after the hurricanes of 2020, despite having the authority to do so.

 

Justice for Central America was a transnational and national demand TPSianos made. In the United States they reminded the U.S. government and the public that TPSianos are here and they are not leaving (Aquí estamos y no nos vamos). As sociologist Susan B. Coutin observed during her research for Salvadoran struggles for U.S. residency in the 1980s and 1990s, the assertion ‘!Aquí estamos!’ was more important than the defiant “!Y no nos vamos!’ because their presence in the United States along with their familial bonds to U.S. children, their properties, and their tax payments have given them the moral right to stay in the country.

 

The journey for a permanent residency for TPSianos is constantly changing. After six years of litigation, the Ramos case came to an end in 2024. The end of the Ramos case was cause for celebration for the TPS community because they succeeded in stopping the cancelation of TPS that former President Trump initiated, they pressured the Biden administration to redesignate TPS for recipeints currently under the program, and countries like El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal , Nicaragua, and Sudan have time to reregister tfor TPS under the new deadlines (Haiti-August 2024, El Salvador-March 2025, Sudan-April 2025, Nepal-June 2025, Honduras and Nicaragua-July 2025). While the end of the Ramos case succeeded in saving TPS short term, it could not guarantee permanent residency or even future redesignations. Yet, TPSianos celebrated stopping the possibility of deportation back in 2018 and the growth of their Alliance, their community, and their personal organizing experience. But the end of the Ramos case does not mean an end to their fight for permanent residency; it is simply a new chapter.

 

Throughout their seven years organizing, TPSianos found creative ways to voice their demands and the National TPS Alliance has been at the forefront of supporting and amplifying their efforts. For many, the Alliance has been a school for TPSianos and as the bus driver for La Libertad, Julio Perez, has said, it is also a school for the U.S. public. When they share their testimonies, when they drive around La Libertad, when they sing their songs and chant their chants, they are performing popular education. They are transmitting their demands and their hopes to others so that in community and with solidarity, the movement continues to grow in number and in strength as they move toward permanent residency. 

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