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They Came To America For Protection. Now They Want To Stay.

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Jose Villegas (left) tends tomatoes in his backyard with his younger daughter, Yulisa Villegas, 10. “Find a job, make money and have something in the future,” Villegas said, recalling his dreams when coming to the U.S. “So that’s what I got. Now I’m a homeowner.”

In 1998, when he was 22 years old, Jose Villegas moved to the United States from El Salvador.

He spent much of his teen years avoiding entanglements with the infamous international El Salvadoran gang MS-13. “The crime was getting worse,” Villegas said. “A lot of people, like myself, had to escape from MS-13, because they were always around.”

For Villegas, moving to the United States was an obvious choice. He saw poverty and unemployment everywhere while growing up in El Salvador, and people who graduated from universities there were not always better off — the majority of them often did not find jobs even after receiving an education.

Villegas, now 45, lives in Hartford with his wife and two children, working in construction and paying the mortgage — safe from the dangers of life in El Salvador but still without the peace he sought — the peace that comes with becoming a permanent resident.

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Jose Villegas sits with his wife, Cruz Villegas, and his daughters. “The little ones are the priority for me, because in reality, if I didn’t have the kids, my brain will be different,” Villegas said. “I see some stories from people who got separated. I don’t want to be in those shoes.”

Villegas and hundreds of thousands of others have had their lives in the U.S. tied to the volatility of their status as “temporary residents.” They have continually lobbied lawmakers in Congress to adopt legislation that would grant them permanent legal status, but this goal seems increasingly unattainable with the Supreme Court’s recent decision to deny green cards to immigrants who entered the United States unlawfully.

The Department of Homeland Security grants Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to individuals who were born in countries that have an ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster or epidemic, or other temporary conditions that make living conditions nearly unbearable. Villegas has been on TPS since the administration of President George W. Bush made citizens of El Salvador eligible for TPS in 2001 after a succession of devastating earthquakes.

When the Trump administration removed TPS eligibility for people from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador in 2017, Villegas and about 5,000 other TPS beneficiaries went to Washington, D.C., in protest as the nascent National TPS Alliance. Today, Villegas is one of the leaders of a National TPS Alliance team based in Connecticut.

To Villegas, advocating for the protections of the TPS community is nothing new. Even though the Supreme Court’s decision to restrict the access of green cards for immigrants applying for permanent legal status seems like a setback, Villegas sees it as a chance for TPS holders to become more vocal.

“If we still have TPS benefits, it’s because we have lived the way the United States wants us to live under the law,” Villegas said. “So many people with TPS from long before started doing bad things, and obviously they got deported. We still have it because we are living under the law. We aren’t criminals.”

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Cruz Villegas (left) sits with her younger daughter, Yulisa Villegas, watching TV. Cruz works as a waitress on weekends to care for her children when her husband is working on weekdays. “You have to sacrifice some family time to survive,” Jose Villegas said.

Villegas, the TPS Alliance and some individuals from the ally organization 32BJ, a workers union, held a vigil in Hartford outside of Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office June 9.

While Villegas and the TPS Alliance continue to lobby for permanent legal status, there are others who have not been as lucky.

Fausto Canelas, 63, lives in Bridgeport. He came to the United States from Honduras, where he owned a farm, in 1996. Local extortionists took his money and threatened his family.

Canelas and his wife, Miriam, left behind their four children, the eldest now 36 and the youngest 28, in Honduras. “Unfortunately, we were detained at the border between the U.S. and Mexico,” Canelas said. “We were deported, but I was sent to Guatemala for some reason. We didn’t have the money for both of us to come again, so I came on my own.”

Canelas crossed the border and found a place to stay with his sister-in-law in Houston, but he soon traveled to Connecticut to live with his brother in Bridgeport. After one year of working as a janitor in schools and office buildings, he was able to save enough money to send for Miriam to live with him. She arrived in the U.S. just before Hurricane Mitch slammed Honduras.

When the Clinton administration designated Honduras for TPS in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch ravaged much of the country, Canelas and Miriam were both successful in obtaining their temporary status. For two years, Canelas continued to work as a janitor in Weston for $6 an hour, while Miriam worked at a McDonald’s. Then in 2001, Miriam moved back to Honduras to care for their kids, and once again Canelas was alone.

For the last 20 years, he has sent the little money he makes back home to support his family but has only seen them a handful of times. Canelas last saw his family in 2014, when he applied for special permission to leave the U.S. to visit his mother before she died. “The permission didn’t come through until after she passed,” Canelas said.

Like Villegas, Canelas says he has been doing everything he can to live a law-abiding, safe life in the U.S. with the hope that his clean record would make it easier for him to one day obtain permanent residency. He still hopes to bring Miriam and their kids to live here, Canelas said.

“Thankfully, because of the union I belong to, 32BJ, I have been able to do what I can to try to change my status, like going to Washington, D.C., to speak with senators and congresspeople about our situation,” Canelas said. “But we’ve managed to achieve very little.”

There are more than 400,000 TPS holders nationwide who come from a set of 12 eligible countries. According to New American Economy, there are 522,787 immigrant residents in Connecticut, and about 3,200 of them have TPS.

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Yulisa Villegas enjoys the breeze on the back of her father’s truck before a thunderstorm comes. Yulisa said that she’s worried about her parents’ visa situation. “I’m scared because I know there’s a chance that my parents can get deported,” she said. “I’m trying not to think about it that much, I’m trusting in the president to give them all residency.”

The early months of Joe Biden’s presidency have seen many protections restored for TPS holders that were removed over the past couple of years. But there is also a heightened urgency to have H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act, pass through the Senate.

The Dream and Promise Act would provide undocumented immigrants a path to conditional permanent residency. The act would benefit the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who received protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but it would help people with TPS as well. With this law in place, the only condition for permanent residency for both groups would be to receive an education and find employment.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost taxpayers $35.3 billion in the first 10 years after the adoption of H.R. 6. However, according to a 2019 statement from the Center for American Progress, eligible immigrants own about 1,600 homes in Connecticut and pay $30.2 million in annual mortgage payments. Those households pay $249.5 million in federal taxes and $135.4 million in state and local taxes each year.

Annually, an estimated $856.2 million in spending power is generated from the households of immigrants eligible for protection under H.R.6, which passed the House on March 18.

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Yulisa Villegas holds her mom’s hands while watching TV. Jose Villegas said that his daughters often ask what happens if the American Dream and Promise Act doesn’t pass and if they will have to go back to El Salvador.

Blumenthal has advocated for the protection of the Dreamers and said he wants to see the TPS community protected as well. “People with TPS deserve a straightforward, timely path toward earned citizenship,” Blumenthal said in an email.

“Without effective legislative solutions, TPS recipients could be forced to return to the volatile, unsafe conditions they fled in the first place. I will continue strongly advocating for the passage of bills like the Citizenship Act and the SECURE Act to make the dream of American citizenship a reality for those with TPS status,” Blumenthal said.

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