BY EILEEN GRENCH AND CHRISTOPHER ALVAREZ/ THE CITY
This story was originally published on August 9, 2021] by THE CITY
Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled a $3.5 trillion-dollar budget reconciliation bill that included a proposed path to citizenship for “qualified immigrants” — and New Yorkers are poised to help lead the fight for passage.
The National TPS Alliance came to the city last week to rally the roughly 25,000 New Yorkers who benefit from Temporary Protected Status, a federal program that allows some immigrants to work and live in the United States as their home countries recover from natural disasters or political crises — and sometimes both.
Now, the National TPS Alliance hopes to recruit immigrants and advocates in New York to put pressure on a very powerful local politician: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a longtime TPS supporter who had assured them in April he’d make sure a path to permanent residency was on the horizon.
“It’s important that politicians, members of Congress, and New York senators realize that we understand their work, that we understand the responsibility that they have to us,” Oscar Rodriguez, a 48-year-old TPS holder and head of the new local chapter of the Alliance, told THE CITY.
Born in Honduras, Rodriguez has lived in the city for 25 years, most of that time in Kew Gardens, Queens. He works as a truck driver — and was one of an estimated 12,500 essential-worker TPS holders in the city who toiled through the pandemic.
Now, he is putting what little free time he has towards heading up the new New York City chapter in a push to enlist Schumer’s help in the battle for citizenship.
“We pay taxes so that [elected officials] can have the jobs they have. It sounds intense if we say it like that, but it’s true,” said Rodriguez. “We understand that power comes from the people, the vote. And we chose [these politicians] so they would fight for our rights, not to kick us out of the country. They must realize that TPS-holders have children that vote.”
As previously reported by THE CITY, many New Yorkers with temporary legal status have expressed renewed optimism, given the Biden administration’s early promise to provide them permanent residency and a clear path to citizenship. Soon, even more TPS-holders from Haiti will benefit after the program was expanded for the residents of the Caribbean country last week following intense advocacy.
National TPS Alliance committee members were banking on that hope to reel in fellow TPS holders to join the fight for permanent residency as they spent last week door-knocking and handing out flyers, in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole across the city.
At an event held Saturday afternoon in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, their canvassing was rewarded with a small but steady stream of people looking to help. Some were drawn over by the giant blue flag being waved by Jose Palma, a NTPSA coordinator from Massachusetts.
“I know that many of us are tired,” Palma yelled to the crowd. “Let’s fight these next months because we are close.”
One woman who came to join the fight was Evelyn Zavala, a single mother from Central Islip, L.I.
She arrived in New York 20 years ago hoping to keep her sons from falling “prey to the gangs” in El Salvador.
“It’s unfair that she has to be advocating to stay here, we should be allowed to stay here,” her 13-year-old son, Ismael, told THE CITY. “She hasn’t committed any crimes, she’s not a criminal, she’s a hard worker. She should be able to stay here not having the fear of getting deported.”
The recent moves in Washington are only the latest in a decades-long rollercoaster of uncertainty for many TPS holders.
TPS recipients who hail from El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti and other countries must wait every few months to find out if the program has been renewed — a cycle that has repeated in some cases for over 20 years.
For many TPS holders like Zavala, that represents the majority of their adult life.
Some parents’ last option is to wait until their U.S.-born children turn 21 and can petition for residency for them.
“It is a psychological problem that our children are being put through,” said Palma. “Not being able to be enjoying their day to day, enjoying their life and developing normally, but rather being anxious to reach an older age to be able to help their parents.”
Relying on D.C.
Since the beginning of his term, Biden has made no unilateral moves toward immigration reform.
Instead, TPS holders’ hope and advocacy have hung on a bill introduced earlier this year that would ensure residency for so-called Dreamers — DACA recipients who came to the country as children — and TPS recipients, as well as immigrants with so-called Deferred Enforced Departure status.
That bill, the American Dream and Promise Act passed through the House of Representatives in March, but has so-far stalled in the Senate.
So, too, were TPS holders’ hopes stalled until last week when Biden finally spoke out publicly to support a citizenship pathway — not through an overhaul bill, but in the budget package.
“I think we should include in the reconciliation bill the immigration proposal,” he told reporters after a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Soon after, Schumer and Senate Democrats took action to include immigration reform in the budget package — albeit with no promise to any particular immigrant group.
Now, advocates are scrambling to hold Schumer to promises he’s made to the immigrant community, like when he called on the Senate to pass the American Dream and Promise Act for both DACA and TPS holders in June.
The memo Senate Democrats released on Monday describing what should be in the budget reconciliation package doesn’t mention TPS or Dreamers — and only uses the word “immigrants” once, where it says the Judiciary Committee wants to create “Lawful permanent status for qualified immigrants.”
In response to questions regarding whether the majority leader supports TPS holders’ inclusion in the bill, a spokesperson with Schumer’s office told THE CITY the senator is a “longtime supporter of TPS and believes in the program.” But the spokesperson would not comment on specifics of the bill, which remains in negotiations, or a clearer path to citizenship.
Advocates want more than just belief.
“We hope that it’s not just words here, that we can have him actually deliver on the promise,” Erik Villalobos, communications director for the National TPS Alliance, told THE CITY. “We’re in New York, and there’s a responsibility for the community here in New York to push Schumer as much as we can.“
Looking for Star Power
One way that Villalobos’ organization hopes to apply pressure is by focusing on the high-profile Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s constituency in Queens and The Bronx.
At a Monday news conference, members of the Alliance’s nascent New York committee stood shoulder to shoulder with national members. Rodriguez and others called on Ocasio-Cortez to support their efforts and join them in a march on Washington in September, when Congress is aiming to vote on the budget package.
A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, Lauren Hitt, told THE CITY that “the congresswoman does support a path to citizenship for TPS holders being included in reconciliation.” Hitt added that Ocasio-Cortez has held multiple meetings with local advocates in Queens and The Bronx, including one in just the last two weeks.
Hitt did not specify the organizations, or respond to questions about the September march.
For Rodriguez, a path to citizenship would mean that he could finally buy a house without the worries of deportation, and gain stability for his mixed-status family who depend on him financially. He also hopes his son, a DACA recipient, would also benefit from the bill.
“I always use the example of Rosa Parks, who is an icon, a symbol of human rights and for her community as well,” he said. “I want us to be strong, to be one voice and must be listened to, to make it known that we are here. That we are going to fight for the rights owed to us.”
He added, “We want our families to sleep peacefully.”
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