The labor union Unite Here has led the fight to extend the protected status of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have lived in the country for many years, while the Trump administration threatens to deport them.
President Donald Trump takes an aggressive approach to immigration control, promising to prioritize domestic workers. But stuck in the middle of that pledge are hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have been in this country for years, sometimes decades, under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. The administration has already ended the protected status for Haiti and Nicaragua immigrants. A decision on Honduras immigrants will be made later.
Unite Here, a hotel and service workers union, believes such a decision would be disastrous for families and the business community. Many of the immigrants within the program have been in the country for decades, they’ve raised families, settled down in communities, and lived as Americans. Unite Here Local 355, based in Florida, leads the charge as many of these now at-risk immigrants live and work in the Florida and belong to the union.
“These are people who have legal status here in the United States, were granted that status because of the conditions in their home country, and their inability to return home,” Local 355 secretary-treasurer Wendi Walsh tells InsideSources. “Many of these folks now have raised families here, have American born children, they are hardworking folks who pay their taxes and contribute to the local and national economies. Now suddenly they are going to have their status revoked for no good reason. It’s a mean-spirited approach to people who have been here.”
The TPS program allows foreign nationals to stay in the country legally if they are unable to return to their home country safely. Unite Here first started their opposition campaign earlier this year in Florida, where a large concentration of TPS immigrants live. But theirs quickly became a national cause, gathering bipartisan support from lawmakers, the business community, and the greater labor movement.
“We’ve been fighting this since earlier this year, talking to employers who would like to see these workers stay, they don’t want to have to replace good, hardworking, trained employees,” Walsh tells IS. “We’re also doing a number of public actions, reaching out to elected officials here in Florida, who stood with us on this issue, both Democrats, and Republicans, and we have virtually not faced any opposition to our position, other than in the administration.”
Unite Here has organized protests, launched petitions, coordinated with industry groups, and met with lawmakers in their push to extend the protected status for these immigrants. The union argues the decision not to renew the status would bear a grave human and economic cost. Their goal is for TPS immigrants to stay permanently.
“Many of these people have American children who would face deportation to a country they potentially have never visited, never mind lived there,” Walsh explains. “The people that we’re talking to, once they understand this issue, I have not faced a bit of opposition to extending TPS. I think everyone understands that, not only is this the humane thing to do for these families, but it’s also the right thing to do for businesses and the economy.”
Unite Here international vice president Maria Elena Durazo notes that the administration has put these immigrants and their families in a difficult and uncertain position. But she is holding out hope they’ll find a happy ending. The campaign has been successful to an extent has been, with Washington D.C. rallying to the immigrants’ aid.
“I don’t think anyone could step into their minds and understand how fearful it is that any day something dramatic could happen to them, or their parents, or another family member,” Durazo said. “In some cases, the parents are telling their kids, mostly they are telling their kids if they are forced to tell their kids. Kids hear it, they see them sitting in their living rooms watching the news and this comes up, and so then kids ask if that could happen to them.”
Durazo points to a personal example she knows—a family who was preparing to buy a home. They had saved and were already in the process of looking when news came that their protected status might expire. They’ve had to put their plans on hold, uncertain what the future holds.
“They had to stop looking for a home because they didn’t know whether they’d be in a position to economically, financially to be able to pay the mortgage because the result of losing TPS would be losing their jobs,” Durazo says. “So many things we take for granted become, how do you go forward in your life when you could lose your job and become subject to deportation.”
Durazo adds that beyond the personal and social consequences of not renewing protected status for these immigrants, there is also an economic cost. Employers would lose trusted and trained employees who have worked in the country for many years.
“There are certain areas that have a bigger concentration so we know that they’ll be more severely impacted,” Durazo said. “So hospitality will be more severely impacted. We know construction will be severely impacted, which is why you’ll see in the next six months several construction unions will be much more actively involved in lobbying for TPS to be extended.”
Unite Here originally granted 50,000 Haitians protected status, many of them in Florida. The Haitians came to the U.S. after their homeland was hit by a catastrophic earthquake seven years ago. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees the program, announced May 22 that their status would be extended for six months before coming under reconsideration. DHS later decided Nov. 20 that it would end the protected status for Haitian immigrants after a phase out period ending on July 22, 2019
The decision to extend their protected status by six months merely delayed the problem, Unite Here argues. The union hopes to see the program extended until the government develops pathways for their members to stay permanently. Durazo also notes that the conditions in Haiti still have not improved enough for them to return safely.
“If things had really dramatically changed in the whole country, it would not be as big of a crisis,” Durazo explains. “It would still be a question of uprooting families and communities. Think about Haiti, how can we possibly say it’s okay, everyone go back, 50,000 Haitians should go back and be absorbed back into that economy and that community with no problem. They don’t even have the basics for their population.”
DHS announced November 6 that the protected status for Nicaraguan immigrants would be terminated by January 5, 2019, to allow for an orderly transition. DHS acting secretary Elaine Duke also determined that additional information is necessary before a decision can be made for Honduran immigrants with a protected status. Salvadoran immigrants had their protected status extended to March 9, 2018, when it will be reconsidered.
Not long after their fight began, Unite Here expanded their advocacy to all immigrants facing deportation because their protected status was at risk of expiring. Durazo notes the union approached the fight in three ways on both the local and national levels. They reached out to businesses, lobbied politicians, and gave the cause a human face—elevating the voices of workers whose lives and families would be derailed.
Unite Here worked to leverage political pressure on politicians. The union brought protected immigrants to Washington D.C. to meet lawmakers and coordinated with partners in the business community and allied unions who wield their own political influence.
“The second part was to add to the political pressure through lobbying,” Durazo tells IS. “We did that by both sending TPS men and women to D.C. for lobbying, we’ve done it locally. We did it whether or not there were a huge number of TPS workers, for example in Georgia, we’ve done a lot of work there, and we got a lot of local officials to sign off and move their support for TPS.”
The final pivotal piece of the campaign requires putting a human face on the issue, Durazo adds. The union used media and other venues to show the public that these immigrants are productive members of their communities who have integrated into American society over the years. Countering rhetoric from the White House, Durazo says, is key.
“They are neighbors, they go to church with you, their kids are going to school with your kids, and they work really hard,” Durazo says. “The more that we can do that, the more I think the consciousness has been raised, which has been taken up by a number of media outlets.”
Congress has worked in recent months to protect the immigrants from deportation. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation October 31 that would allow TPS migrants who arrived in the country prior to January 13, 2011 to claim legal permanent resident status. The TPS program also includes immigrants from Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.