The coronavirus outbreak reminds us that we live in a country of parallel realities, in which people of different social circumstances and backgrounds are experiencing the hardships of this national crisis in dramatically disparate ways.
Across America, the impact of this crisis varies greatly from person to person, from those who have the luxury of working from home to those who’ve lost their main source of income to those who have no choice but to keep working.
Many of these essential workers are grocery cashiers and warehouse clerks who cannot afford to miss a paycheck; others are nurses, hospital workers and emergency personnel whose jobs demand they show up on the frontlines of the fight against covid-19 each and every day.
For me, all of these workers are the invisible heroes of this pandemic – and among them are hundreds of thousands of immigrants hailing from different countries and diverse backgrounds. Indeed, immigrant workers across our economy are keeping our supermarkets, health centers, and other essential businesses running to the benefit of all Americans.
Among these hardworking immigrants are more than 131,000 people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) serving as “essential critical infrastructure workers.” Created by Congress through the Immigration Act of 1990, TPS is a temporary, renewable program that provides humanitarian protection to individuals that can’t return to their countries of origin due to armed conflict or natural disasters. TPS beneficiaries also are authorized to work legally while they are in the United States.
During this pandemic, approximately 11,600 TPS recipients are working on the frontlines of the health care system as physicians, intensive care nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapists, and health technicians saving lives. There also are 76,100 TPS holders working in food-related occupations or industries—from grocery stores and restaurants to farms and food processing plants—and 6,900 working in transportation and warehousing services that are keeping the U.S. moving during this crisis.
In New Jersey, there are 7,500 TPS workers in essential occupations. All of them, invisible heroes, are part of our communities and we are seeing how impactful and vital their jobs are. The average TPS holder from El Salvador, Honduras, or Haiti has lived in the United States for 22 years, becoming integral members of our communities and building families that include 273,000 American-born U.S.-citizen children.
TPS holders like Madelia Cartagena from Newark, NJ and her husband Walter arrived from El Salvador 21 years ago. As pharmacies and doctors’ offices needed more sanitizer dispensers, the company Madelia has worked at for the last 17 years is working non-stop to satisfy the increased demand.
Madelia’s husband, Walter, continues to work in construction projects in Jersey City during the pandemic because they cannot afford to miss a paycheck to cover the expenses of their family, including those of their 17-year-old American son.
Yet looming over the heads of TPS holders like Madelia and Walter are the Trump Administration’s efforts to strip humanitarian protections and work permits from nearly 400,000 TPS holders living and working legally in the United States, a majority from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.
Last year, I issued a report that found the Administration’s decisions to end the longstanding TPS programs for these countries were guided by political considerations and in direct conflict with the dire warnings of career diplomats and State Department officials.
Currently, TPS recipients are stuck in legal limbo as courts decide whether the Trump Administration’s efforts to end TPS for certain countries are legal. As a result, many TPS holders and their families live in fear of being eventually forced to pack their bags and return to countries often plagued by violence or extreme poverty
At a time when our hospitals and health care workers are stretched thin and our economy is increasingly reliant on immigrant workers in essential roles, we must stand with TPS recipients and acknowledge their service and sacrifice. TPS recipients are critical both to our nation’s fight against COVID-19 and the ability of millions of Americans to access food and other basic necessities during this unprecedented crisis.
That’s why I recently called on President Trump to automatically extend work authorizations of all TPS beneficiaries immediately. At a time when thousands of Americans are dying and millions more are suffering in this economy, we need the work of these invisible heroes now more than ever and they deserve the peace of mind of not living with fear of deportation.
In the absence of action by the President to protect America’s TPS holders, Congress can and must step up and do the right thing. It is time to lift the cloud hanging over TPS holders’ futures by providing them with a pathway citizenship. The bipartisan American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 (H.R.6) passed the House of Representatives last year, and it is time for the Senate to follow suit.
Bob Menendez is the senior U.S. Senator from New Jersey, the highest-ranking Latino in Congress and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.