Jody Mashek directs the legal services component of AFSC’s Iowa Immigrants Voice Program in Des Moines. Jon Krieg is a senior administrative associate for AFSC’s Central Regional Office.

Jon Krieg: AFSC is in the midst of helping hundreds of Salvadorans apply for TPS, or Temporary Protected Status. Would you please explain what TPS is?

Jody Mashek: TPS is something that the Secretary of Department Homeland Security can grant to foreign nationals who are currently in the United States and who are undocumented and can’t go back to their home country or be deported to their home country due to some sort of strife there, such as armed conflict or natural disaster.

There are currently people from several countries who have TPS in the U.S. – one of the biggest groups is from El Salvador. There are about 240,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. who have TPS. The last time they were granted TPS was in 2001 after an earthquake rocked El Salvador.

Some other groups that have TPS include Hondurans and Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch hit both those countries in October of 1998. We don’t have Nicaraguan clients who come to our office for assistance in filing TPS papers with the Citizenship and Immigration Services, but we do have about 20 Hondurans and 220 Salvadorans who come to our office for TPS renewal.

TPS has to be renewed every 12 to 18 months. Before that time is up, there’s always a wait-and-see period to see if the Secretary of DHS will announce the extension of TPS. When it is announced, then everyone with TPS must reapply in order to retain their status. There’s only a short window of time for them to reapply. If they don’t reapply to extend their TPS, or if they do not do it within the allotted period of time, they lose TPS and revert back to the undocumented status they had in this country before they obtained TPS.  .

TPS does not lead to residency; there’s no way to apply for residency, or a “green card,” if you have TPS.  The only thing TPS grants is work authorization; so anyone who has TPS is eligible to apply for a work permit, which means they’re then able to obtain Social Security numbers.  As members of our community they’re able to work legally; they buy houses and have children. They can function as residents of this community, just like anyone else, yet TPS does not provide any permanent path to residency.

If you think about it, Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans have had TPS for quite a while. Again, Hondurans and Nicaraguans were granted TPS after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and Salvadorans after the big earthquake in 2001. It’s been nearly a decade or longer for people from those countries to have to go through a big process every 12-18 months. TPS costs quite a bit of money--over $400 per person to renew the work permit and pay for fingerprints.

And of course this process has the potential to create fear in people. They may be grateful to have the chance to be able to work in this country legally, but at the same time, there’s always that panic about whether TPS will be extended.

In order for the Department of Homeland Security to extend TPS, they have to evaluate whether conditions have changed in those countries that have been designated TPS. Every time DHS renews TPS, there is an announcement in the Federal Register explaining current conditions in the countries and whether they’ve remained the same.

Again, right now Salvadorans are in the middle of renewing their TPS. And if you look at the Federal Register announcement, it talks about the continued lack of infrastructure, the lack of available housing, and the lack of health clinics and hospitals since so much of it was destroyed during the 2001 earthquake, and other natural disasters in El Salvador since that time.

The most recent group to be granted TPS are nationals of Haiti after the major earthquake there in January 2010. Janet Napolitano, DHS Secretary, designated TPS for Haiti. But it’s designated for people who were in the U.S. prior to a certain date. When you apply for TPS for the very first time, you have to provide evidence showing you’ve been here. People can’t just come from Haiti now and apply for it; you had to already have been in the U.S.

As far as qualifications or eligibility for TPS, you cannot have been convicted of a felony or two or more misdemeanors. So it’s very stringent. It is possible a person could lose TPS if they have had some sort of issue or incident with law enforcement.

Jon Krieg: TPS renewal time for Salvadorans obviously creates a great deal more work for you and the program. Would you please talk about volunteers and former staff who come in to help?

Jody Mashek: We’re lucky to have Ramona Gomez, who retired from AFSC, coming in to help several hours each week. She fields a lot of phone calls and schedules appointments. Every time the government announces the renewal of TPS, it’s very frenzied around here. We just wrapped up Honduran TPS in July, but because we don’t have a lot of Hondurans here, it was pretty calm.

But with El Salvador, of course, it’s a much busier time. People are very anxious to get their papers filed within that small window of time, which is just under two months. There’s a natural desire to come into our office as soon as possible. Many people who come have had their files with us since TPS was first announced in 2001.

So they want to come back here. We’re happy to help people apply for their TPS, but it creates a very busy time. When TPS for El Salvador is at its renewal point, we often work extra Saturdays and Sundays to accommodate everyone – those seem to be the most popular times. We have several volunteers come in to help fill out paperwork, to make sure we can get everyone processed on time.

Jon Krieg: I assume people with TPS are often separated from their families. They can’t bring family members here to be with them, can they?

Jody Mashek: Right. TPS does not allow people to bring additional family members here. So even people with TPS typically don’t go back to their home country. They can ask for a certain permission, by filing an additional application with Citizenship and Immigration Services, to obtain something called an “advance parole.” It’s not actually permission to leave the U.S., but rather it’s permission to get back into the U.S. after they’ve left. So every once in a while we have someone with TPS who goes back to their home country for a visit – typically because a family member is ill or has passed away. It’s definitely not recommended because it’s costly, and somewhat risky, so for the most part people with TPS are separated from their families. There are people who haven’t been to their home countries in 20 years or more.

Jon Krieg: There’s a hope, isn’t there, that under comprehensive immigration reform, people with TPS could see a pathway to permanent legal residency or citizenship?

Jody Mashek: That’s a hope because, when you think about it, people with TPS have been here a decade or more now. They’ve bought houses here, they’ve had kids born here who are U.S. citizens and have never even been to El Salvador or those other countries. In theory, if TPS were to end for several hundred thousand people, what kind of effect would that have on their families and their property and goods here? It would essentially create the same kind of situation we’re already experiencing with many people who are undocumented and have families and ties here.

Actually there was just a memo leaked from Citzenship and Immigration Services that was drafted in January of this year where they talk about, in the absence of immigration reform, some other measures that could keep people in this country lawfully and prevent deportation. That memo talked about allowing people with TPS to apply for adjustment of status, in other words, their permanent residency. Granted, it was just a draft document, who knows how it came to be made public. But certainly it provides a glimmer of hope, it’s being discussed. We’ll just have to keep pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.