Are more Trump-era family separations coming to California’s immigrant communities?

Are more Trump-era family separations coming to California’s immigrant communities?

Originally Published in The Sacramento Bee

Yesenia Amaro - November 20, 2020

More than 54,000 U.S.-born children in California have Salvadoran and Honduran parents who are in the country under, Temporary Protected Status, a program in limbo as the Trump administration seeks to end it.

Families facing uncertainty worry what will happen to their children if parents are deported, according to attorneys who spoke with The Bee.

“A logical consequence for these kids is that they will be separated from their parents because the loss of status opens you up for the possibility of deportation,” Almas Sayeed, deputy director of programs for the California Immigrant Policy Center, said during a recent interview. “Overwhelmingly, that is actually going to be what happens to these children.”

An estimated 50,300 children in the state have Salvadoran parents in the country under the TPS program. Another 4,400 children born in the country have Honduran parents who are also TPS holders in California, according to data from the Center for American Progress. That doesn’t include children from families from other countries also covered by TPS, such as Haiti.

Mendota, a small farm town west of Fresno County, is home to a large Salvadoran community, which some city leaders estimate makeup about 50% of the town’s population. There is no way to know how many of Mendota’s residents are TPS holders and how many of them have young children, but city leaders suspect it is a large number.

Nationwide, there are more than 300,000 adults who have lived in the country under TPS, according to the ACLU of Southern California.

With the future of the program up in the air, some local and state leaders are concerned many children could end up in local child welfare systems if the program is eventually eliminated and their parents are deported to their home countries. But other experts say there are many ways in which the situation can play out and feel optimistic with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

In September, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Trump administration and allowed for the TPS program’s phase-out. The TPS status has been granted to people from countries that face natural disasters or civil wars, but the Trump administration has argued the protection has been renewed beyond its need.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Trump-era immigration policy separated families.

More than 5,500 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under a controversial 2017 “zero tolerance” policy implemented by the Trump administration. As of October, the parents of 545 of those children couldn’t be located.

However, Biden said he would order an immediate review of TPS “for vulnerable populations” who wouldn’t be safe in their home countries, according to his immigration plan. He said he would protect TPS and Deferred Enforced Departure holders from being deported to countries that are unsafe.

Those who have been in the country for a long time under TPS, and have established their lives here, will see a path to citizenship through legislative immigration reform, according to his plan.

Tom Jawetz, vice president for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, said he doesn’t see a reason why the incoming administration “shouldn’t be able to end the uncertainties that families are feeling.”

The new administration, Jawetz said, will have the opportunity to change course on current litigation and decide to no longer pursue termination of the program in court.

“The president himself can designate all these individuals who are in jeopardy of losing TPS for a status called Deferred Enforced Departure that would allow them to maintain their protection from deportation and as well as their opportunity to work lawfully in the country,” he told The Bee during an interview.

The incoming administration will face several difficult decisions, but resolving the TPS situation should be an easy one, Jawetz said.

“The administration will have ample authority to protect these families and has every reason ... to do so,” he said.

But right now, uncertainty surrounding the program has created “instability” for families in Mendota, said Mayor Pro Tem Victor Martinez.

Not knowing what could happen to their children is just one of several unknowns.

Ending the program would have several consequences for the rural town, Martinez said, many people have invested in buying homes and starting businesses.

“They are living in jeopardy,” he said during a recent interview. “They don’t know what their future is going to hold for them.”

Martinez, however, is in favor of terminating TPS for those with prior crimes, such DUIs or incidents of domestic violence.

“I think that’s very controversial,” he said. But “you have to have an understanding of who qualifies” to stay in this country.

APPEALING TRUMP ADMINISTRATION EFFORT TO END TPS IMMIGRATION

The ACLU of Southern California, along with two other national organizations, filed one of several lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s effort to rescind the protected status for hundreds of thousands of people. Ahilan Arulanantham, senior counsel with the ACLU of Southern California, said they are planning to file an appeal by the Nov. 30 deadline.

The September decision was made by a panel of three judges, and the appeal would ask for the case to hear reheard by the full Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision doesn’t become final until the appeal’s process gets refiled.

“That extends the deadline for when TPS could end,” he said during a recent interview.

As is currently stands, TPS holders from Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan would maintain their protected status at least until March 5, 2021. TPS holders from El Salvador would have until at least Nov. 5, 2021.

After filing the appeal on Nov. 30, the soonest the court can reject the appeal would be within a week, around Dec. 7, he said. And if that became the final order, the soonest TPS could end for all the countries, except for El Salvador, would be four months after that date.

For TPS holders from El Salvador, it would be a year after that date, meaning Dec. 7, 2021, he said.

“I think it’s one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes created by the Trump administration’s immigration policies,” Arulanantham said. “Those families will be faced with a choice of (whether) they can become undocumented and go into the shadows, lose their jobs, lose their homes in many cases, or they can go back, but if they go back then they have to decide whether they want to break their family apart.”

The families can also decide whether to take their children back to their home countries — countries the children have “probably never been to or have been to only a few times in their lives,” he said.

“It’s just extraordinarily difficult,” he said. “It’s a truly horrible situation.”

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO CHILDREN IF TPS IMMIGRATION PROGRAM ENDS?

TPS is available for people who don’t have a disqualifying criminal history, Arulanantham said. There are a few individuals who had a final deportation order, and then they got the protected status.

If TPS is eliminated, those with a final removal order will be subject to immediate arrest and deportation, he said.

“In those cases, that’s the most common context in which you see children sent to the child welfare system, where literally the federal government has torn the family apart,” he said.

When people have time to plan, he said, they usually make plans to take their children with them or leave them with family members who can care for them.

But children end up in the child welfare system, “routinely as a result of deportation,” he said.

“That can definitely happen to TPS,” he said, adding there are probably thousands of TPS holders with a final deportation order from the 80s or 90s.

“You could be arrested, just bad luck in a worksite raid, and they can deport you literally the next day, and then your child is left stranded,” Arulanantham said. “I think that’s a big concern, in general, for how immigration enforcement works in this country. It’s a concern for everyone who lives in fear of immigration enforcement.”

Tricia Gonzalez, director of child welfare at the Fresno County Department of Social Services, said it’s always worrisome when there’s a group of children at risk.

“Usually, that would not trigger us to be involved in unless there’s something going on in a particular family, or a particular child didn’t have a caregiver for some reason, and a plan of care had not been made,” she said during a recent interview. “If we did have to bring them into the system, we would be working with the consulate, working with trying to find people that the child is connected to, and do our best to reunify them as soon as possible.”

Though, Gonzalez said she’s not aware of any formal communication with consulates at this point.

“We do, regularly, come into contact with children from and families from different countries, and different situations and so I do have an immigration liaison in place that has those relationships, so that we can basically contact the right person, depending on which family we are dealing with,” Gonzalez said during a recent interview.

Gonzalez wants to emphasize the importance of family. Her agency, she said, does its best to “maintain connection when it all possible.”

WHAT SHOULD TPS HOLDERS DO?

Arulanantham and Sayeed encourage TPS holders to see attorneys to figure out if they have another option to adjust their immigration status. For example, they said, if they have a U.S.-born child who is 21 or older or they have married a U.S. citizen, the law might be in their favor.

“We are still continuing to pursue the case in court, and we will pursue every possible legal option,” he said.

Sayeed has two other tips for TPS holders: until there’s clarity, live your lives and seek mental health if that’s an option in their community.

“There’s just confusion about what’s going to happen to folks because it’s unclear, and that is very terrifying for families,” she said. “Once people are no longer in the community, that’s one problem, but leading up to the way that this is all going to pan out... there will just be, I imagine, a tremendous amount of stress.”

Martinez, of Mendota, said he contacted representatives at the state level and at the Congressional level about this issue. The response didn’t make him feel any better.

It’s “sad that there’s nothing that they are working on,” he said. “I don’t think enough attention is being placed on this issue.”

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