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‘I Feel Like an American Person’: Immigrants Win Reprieve, but Anxiety Over Deportation Lingers

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Originally published by The NY Times

Thousands of immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan are breathing sighs of relief: For now, they can stay.

federal judge ruled on Wednesday that the Trump administration could not immediately end special protections for people from those countries, which have been ravaged by wars and natural disasters.

The immigrants’ ultimate status in the United States remains in limbo, but the ruling means that they can continue to live and work legally in the country, as many of them have done for decades. More than 263,000 Salvadorans, nearly 59,000 Haitians, more than 5,000 Nicaraguans and more than 1,000 Sudanese have the designation, known as temporary protected status, which alone does not offer a path to permanent residency.

Many of them had wrestled for months with what to do after the government announced it would end their protections. Would they risk staying in the United States? Take their American-born children to a country they do not know? Or split their families apart and return to countries they once desperately escaped?

We spoke to immigrants around the country with temporary protected status, commonly referred to as T.P.S. While they all celebrated the judge’s ruling, they each said it was far from the ultimate goal: gaining permanent legal status through Congress.

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Orlando ZepedaCreditJenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Orlando Zepeda said he was never truly worried about being forced to leave the United States, where he has lived for nearly 25 years. Mr. Zepeda, who came from El Salvador when he was 18 and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, first became involved in immigration advocacy in 2012 and said he felt certain all along that the law was on the immigrants’ side. Worrying, he said, is a waste of energy.

“We have to fight,” Mr. Zepeda, 51, said. “This is a country of just laws, with a fair process for justice. You have to fight for it. We can either be afraid or we can fight, and it is much more effective to fight.”

Through his work in a Central American civil rights group in Los Angeles, Mr. Zepeda met lawyers for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit that led to the injunction. His 15-year-old son, Benjamin, who was born in Los Angeles, is also a named plaintiff in the case. Lawyers argue that his right to be raised by his parents would be violated if his parents were forced to return to El Salvador.

“I fight for my children and they are fighters too,” said Mr. Zepeda, who also has a 13-year-old daughter. “They don’t know my country, they have never been there. They have an education here, a life here.”

Mr. Zepeda and his wife bought a home in South Los Angeles more than a decade ago.

“We are in the community, we have been here a long time,” he said. For years, he volunteered as a chaplain visiting hospitals and jails as part of a Catholic ministry. He still visits hospitals with his wife and children, he said. His entire family also joined a cross-country caravan designed to raise awareness of T.P.S. for several days this summer.

“We’re not just in the courts, we are fighting in the streets,” he said. “I trust in God and I believe God is with us.”

For months, Imara Ampie, 46, said she lived with “so much insecurity and fear, feeling incredibly stressed.”

Ms. Ampie came from Nicaragua nearly two decades ago and has not been back. Her two children, ages 8 and 15, both have autism and learning disabilities.

“In my country, they don’t have understanding of this,” she said. “They don’t have anything for them. There would be no future for them.”

Julio Perez said he felt like an American, even though his immigration documents say otherwise.

Mr. Perez, 45, left El Salvador in 1994, and shortly after arrived in Boston, where he worked for a company that cleaned restaurants in the middle of the night. It was the only work he could find.

When he got temporary protected status in 2001, after two earthquakes shook El Salvador, his life changed.

“I was able to study English at school and got my commercial driver’s license and was a bus driver for six years,” Mr. Perez said.

Then Mr. Perez got a custodial job at Harvard. Being an employee at the university allowed him to get a free education, so Mr. Perez has been working on his English and studying in a professional management program. In Boston, Mr. Perez met his wife, Marina, also a T.P.S. recipient from El Salvador. They have a 13-year-old son, Moses.

The past year has been a challenge.

“The termination of T.P.S. has been devastating,” Mr. Perez said. “Right now, we are worried about the future. It is uncertain. We don’t know what is going to happen.”

He wouldn’t recognize El Salvador now, he said.

“I was a young man when I left my country,” he said. “Half my life I have lived here. I raised my family here. So going to my home country would be like migrating to a new country that I’ve never been.”

“I feel like an American person.”

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Rony PonthieuxCreditSaul Martinez for The New York Times

Rony Ponthieux, 50, came to the United States from Haiti in 1999 and applied unsuccessfully for political asylum. He received T.P.S. in 2010 and is now a registered nurse working with respiratory patients at Jackson Memorial Health, Florida’s largest public hospital system. His wife, Marjorie, also a T.P.S. recipient, is a private nurse assistant, he said.

The couple has two American-born children, Christopher, 18, and Ronyde Christina, 11, a T.P.S. activist in her own right who recorded a video of herself last year pleading with President Trump for extended protections for people like her parents. South Florida is home to the largest population of Haitians outside of Haiti.

Mr. Ponthieux said he had never made serious plans to return to Haiti, in part because he believed his prayers for a reprieve would be answered. But his family has talked about the possibility of losing their legal status.

“It’s a dilemma for us,” he said. “We don’t know what to do if we have to go back to Haiti or risk being deported.”

His son has been to Haiti only once, when he was 11 months old, Mr. Ponthieux said. His daughter has never visited. The last time he returned to the Caribbean nation was three years ago, he said, on a four-day trip. It was his first time there since the devastating 2010 earthquake.

“It’s a different country. It’s destroyed,” said Mr. Ponthieux, who lived in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Ponthieux accused the Trump administration of being anti-immigrant. In a White House meeting in January, Mr. Trump demanded to know why the United States should accept people from Haiti and some African countries, referring to them with a vulgarity.

“They don’t want people from Haiti, people of color, people from Africa,” Mr. Ponthieux said. “They only want white people with blue eyes.”

“But we believe in God,” he added. “We know that God is a god of the less fortunate. God is for everybody.”

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Mohamed AliCreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

Mohamed Ali of Brooklyn learned of the judge’s ruling from a local Sudanese community group.

“It’s very great news for me,” Mr. Ali, 45, said as he prepared to make tea at the apartment he shares with three other men in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn. He received T.P.S. in 2007, when he was living in Indiana.

Mr. Ali, a Zaghawa tribe member, said he was living in Kutum, Sudan, when he fled the violence in his home country in 2003. His father and brother were murdered in what he called the genocide by the Sudanese government. He ended up at a refugee camp in El Tina, on the western border with Chad, and he has lived in the United States since 2006.

Mr. Ali drives a cab for work. His wife still lives in Indiana. He said he had not made other arrangements in the event that he loses his protected status and is deported. All he can do is wait.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said in a whisper. “If Trump suspends T.P.S. and they send me back to Sudan, that’s like sending me to hell — to death.”

Read more:https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/us/immigration-trump-deportation-temporary-protected-status.html

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