Irma Chavez is a married mother of four who leads a business networking program in the United States. The marketing specialist is based in the small city of Springdale, Arkansas. It is a long way from her life as a housekeeper in California years ago. It is even further away from her childhood working in El Salvador’s coffee fields.
Chavez’ path in America was possible because of a U.S. immigration law designed to help people who flee disaster or armed conflict. If they are coming from one of several candidate countries, they can receive what is called Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. TPS permits them to live and work in the U.S. legally.
Former president Donald Trump sought to limit the program by cutting several countries from the list, including El Salvador. Current U.S. President Joe Biden, however, supports a proposal to expand the program. The legislation would give Chavez and hundreds of thousands of people like her a chance to become American citizens.
About 410,000 live and work in the U.S. under the TPS program. Some feared that they might be sent back to their homelands during Trump’s term. Many have not lived in their home countries since they were children.
Irma Chavez poses for a photo, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Springdale, Ark. Chavez came to the United States from her home in El Salvador in 1994 when she was 18 and later was granted temporary protected status.
Now, these immigrants, and others, are hopeful that Congress will pass a bill that could permit them to remain in the U.S. permanently. The bill would establish an eight-year pathway to American citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants and others in the country legally under TPS.
Chavez, who is 44 years old, has been renewing her TPS for 20 years. The new bill could end fears that she might be deported without her children. It also would permit her to travel more easily to see her mother and sister in her Salvadoran hometown.
“We really hope everything is going to change in our favor now,” Chavez said. “We are good people. We work. We do our taxes. We pay our taxes.”
The Department of Homeland Security decides what countries to add to or remove from the TPS program. There are currently 12 countries on the list, including this year’s additions of Myanmar and Venezuela.
Though temporary, a country’s TPS status can be renewed by U.S. officials and has been repeatedly. For example, more than half of TPS holders are from El Salvador, which became part of the program after a 2001 earthquake. Thousands continue to leave the country each year to escape its high rate of violent crime and unemployment.
Giving TPS holders permanency could move many to buy homes and invest in American businesses, said Manuel Orozco. He is director of the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization at the organization Creative Associates International.
Orozco said it would help these immigrants strengthen their economic roots, which would also help the U.S. economy.
Back in El Salvador
Irma Chavez’ sister Iris Franco still lives in El Salvador. The mother of four makes and sells bread near the large city of Santa Ana in El Salvador. She uses a bicycle to transport her products to buyers. Franco’s oldest child is studying to be a doctor. She is the first in her family to go to college.
Neither Franco nor Chavez finished high school. They both worked as children while their mother sold tamales to survive.
In 1994, the family agreed Chavez would travel north to stay with family members in Los Angeles and work for three years. She would save up money and come back.
It did not happen as they planned. Chavez got married and had children. But the money she promised to send back home always arrived. And the amounts she could send rose as her earnings rose over the years. Now, she is helping her sister pay the costs of medical school.
Last year, Salvadorans sent nearly $6 billion home to family members.
People with the temporary status often hold higher-paying jobs than those without legal documents. So they are sometimes able to send more help to their families, said Jesse Acevedo. He is an expert on international migration with the University of Denver in Colorado.
Home in Arkansas
In Arkansas, Chavez leads a business networking group that she hopes will become Springdale’s first Latino chamber of commerce. She and her sister also created a nonprofit organization to help children from their neighborhood in El Salvador. It provides students with school supplies and a gift and party every Christmas.
For Chavez, it was worrisome when the Trump administration announced it would cancel the TPS program for El Salvador.
“I learned a lot from that, that we’re not safe in this country unless we are citizens,” she said.
If the proposal now in Congress becomes law, all her immigration worries might finally be over.
I’m Jill Robbins. And I’m Alice Bryant.
Words in This Story
housekeeper - n. a person whose job is to do the cooking, cleaning, et cetera, in a house
tamale - n. a Mesoamerican food that consists of seasoned ground meat or beans rolled in cornmeal, wrapped in a corn husk, and steamed
legal - n. of or relating to the law