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TPS reprieve brings relief, but permanent status out of reach for many

Immigration activists protest for TPS holder to have the opportunity to apply for permanent residency in Sacramento, Calif., on August 17

By Ray Downs, UPI

Immigrants with Temporary Protected Status will be able to legally remain in the United States after the Department of Homeland Security agreed this week to abide by a federal court's order to keep the program intact.

But the Wednesday agreement is only while DHS appeals the court order, which was delivered earlier this month by a California federal judge who said the Trump administration's decision to not renew TPS for thousands of holders shows an "animus against non-white, non-European immigrants."

While the DHS plan was welcomed by TPS holders and immigration activists, the lack of a pathway to permanent residency for these immigrants who have legally resided in the United States for several years -- sometimes decades -- served as just another reminder of how precarious one's TPS status can be.

Just hours after the DHS plan was announced, a busload of about 50 TPS holders arrived at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami as part of the TPS Alliance's Journey for Justice, a caravan traveling to 50 cities across the United States to promote a pathway to residency for TPS holders and bring awareness to how difficult that can be.

Umaine Louis-Jean, a TPS recipient living in South Florida for 22 years, has been traveling with the caravan for the past six weeks.

"When I heard what they were doing, I wanted to help," Louis-Jean told UPI. "This is a frustrating situation and there has to be a solution."

After coming to the country undocumented in 1996, Louis-Jean first applied for asylum protection but was denied. Instead, immigration officials gave her a work permit and she stayed in the Miami area, where she met her husband, a U.S. citizen, and gave birth to two children on U.S. soil. But a chance for permanent residency has continued to elude her.

Louis-Jean applied for a green card in 2006, but immigration officials denied her application. After that, she sought help from an immigration attorney, but the combination of paperwork costs and attorney's fees would have totaled almost $5,000, which she couldn't afford at the time.

Earthquake provisions

When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the U.S. government granted TPS to about 50,000 Haitians in the United States, including Louis-Jean. The status offered her some relief, despite the fact that recipients need to check in with immigration officials about every 18 months. With the program getting consistently renewed, allowing recipients to live and work legally in the United States, it seemed like a solution to Louis-Jean's immigration tribulations.

Despite the temporary comfort, it might have made the goal of permanent residency more difficult to achieve.

Although TPS allows holders to work and protects them from deportation in non-criminal matters, it alone doesn't give holders a legal immigration status in the United States, said Vanessa Joseph, an attorney with Catholic Legal Services in Hollywood, Fla.

"For a lot of people with TPS, because they have the work permit, they feel comfortable and think they're documented," Joseph said. "But a work permit does not equate to a legal status."

In order to get a green card, immigrants in the United States must go through a process called "adjustment of status."

But many TPS holders, such as Louise-Jean, were undocumented when they first came to the United States and because they don't have a legal status, it can't be adjusted.

Legal limbo

The result is a sort of legal limbo where TPS holders are allowed to remain in the United States, work, pay taxes, have families but can't adjust their immigration status, even if they are married to a U.S. citizen.

"The prevailing interpretation from the government is that if the government gives you TPS, it doesn't count as an 'admission' and therefore it's not possible to get sponsored by a spouse, for example," said Jayesh Rathod, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at American University's School of Law in Washington, D.C.

Further complicating matters, federal courts have different opinions on the government's interpretation of whether TPS qualifies as an admission.

In September 2011, the 11th Circuit concluded that having TPS does not count as a legal admission.

However, in June 2013, the 6th Circuit ruled that a Honduran national living under TPS status in the United States since 1999 should be considered legally admitted to the country and allowed to apply for permanent residency. And in September 2017, the 9th Circuit came to the same conclusion on a similar case.

For TPS holders in states that are part of the 6th Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee) and the 9th Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington), there's a chance they can get a status adjustment provided they otherwise meet the criteria. In other states, they can't.

The lack of a pathway to residency and the varying opinions in federal courts have underlined the need for a legislative solution.

Several congressional members from both parties, including Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., and Mike Coffman, R-Colo., have each introduced bills that would allow a pathway to residency for TPS holders. Congress has continued to hold votes on the issue.

As the TPS Alliance's Journey for Justice caravan wrapped up its Miami event to head to another city en route to its final destination of Washington, D.C., next month, Louis-Jean said hopes that changes soon. Several people in her family have TPS, including her sister and several cousins and a sister, who have all built lives in South Florida.

"We can't stay put. We can't sleep," she said.

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