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Temporarily Protected, Permanently in Limbo

illustration by Nicholas Edwards '23, an Illustration major at RISD

As the Russian invasion rages on in Ukraine, countries from around the world have come together to support refugees fleeing the country. Poland, Moldova, and other bordering countries are allowing refugees in by the millions. The global community has responded to the crisis by donating millions of dollars to charities and granting refugee status to Ukrainian people. One nation, however, has notably neglected to grant refugee status to those fleeing Ukraine: the United States.

On March 3, 2022, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will be granting Ukrainians—both those currently in the United States and those fleeing to it—Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months. TPS is a US immigration distinction that allows nationals from certain designated countries to live in the United States for a short period. While this response may seem adequate at first glance, the reality facing immigrants that come to the United States with TPS is much darker.

The origins of TPS lie in the Immigration Act of 1990, through which Congress granted the Attorney General the authority to provide temporary protection to immigrants who cannot return to their own countries due to safety concerns. The problem with TPS, however, is that even though it was meant to be used for only very short-term situations, such as natural disasters, it has come to be used as a quick way for the United States to take in individuals who really should have been granted refugee or asylum seeker status. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, being granted TPS “does not lead to lawful permanent resident status or give any other immigration status.” 

Part of the reason why US presidents are so quick to grant TPS is that it is incredibly difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to gain admittance into the United States through other avenues. The main difference between these two designations—refugee and asylum seeker—is that a refugee applies for their status outside of the country they’re moving to, whereas asylum seekers claim asylum upon arrival to their new countries. To legally become a refugee, one needs an official referral from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and even then, admittance is not guaranteed. Attaining asylum seeker status takes less time, but asylum seekers receive less guidance on resettling in the United States. Both processes can be incredibly difficult for those living far from the United States, not to mention lengthy and inefficient; if someone’s admittance to the country as an asylum seeker is denied, their legal status is in limbo as immigration courts process their case.

While TPS does not preclude someone from applying for asylum, it is extremely difficult to navigate the asylum process, especially because immigration courts receive insufficient funding. Yet, many TPS recipients are being persecuted in their own countries and should truly be granted asylum without having to jump through legal and bureaucratic hoops. For these individuals, asylum status is far more beneficial than TPS because it does provide a direct path to permanent citizenship. And, perhaps more importantly, the status of asylum holders is much less vulnerable to the changing winds of America’s political climate. 

The transitory nature of TPS became acutely clear during the Trump administration. On September 14, 2020, Trump revoked TPS designation for immigrants from El Salvador, Sudan, Nicaragua, and Haiti. This sudden move left TPS recipients only six months to find a way to gain legal status, or risk being deported. Many of the 300,000 residents put at risk for deportation have lived in the United States for decades. In fact, more than half of Salvadoran and Honduran migrants with TPS have lived in the United States for over 20 years, as well as 16 percent of Haitian migrants. These individuals have built lives here; often, their children have not known any other home. 

A young woman from New Jersey named Liane Taracena described, while holding back tears, the pain she felt when thinking of her mother, who was unable to watch her go off to college due to the uncertainty regarding her TPS. “[N]ow that I am finally going to college, it’s kind of bittersweet,” Taracena said in a video produced by the American Friends Service Committee in support of TPS. “It’s exciting … but we run the risk of her possibly not being able to witness that with me. It’s something that we’ve worked so hard for, and she’s probably not going to be there for that.” 

TPS does fulfill a certain niche in our country’s immigration process—for those fleeing short-term crises. But the problem is that politicians lean on TPS instead of trying to expand who and how many people can be granted asylum. The recent Supreme Court ruling Sanchez v. Mayorkas has made it even more difficult for TPS recipients to attain permanent legal status. Now, many TPS holders must leave the United States and apply for a visa, a process that can take up to 10 years, to gain lawful status. 

It’s a deep failure of our immigration system that the president can unilaterally take away the legal status of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have lived in the United States for decades. And it expresses a deep cruelty that the country would allow TPS recipients to live in a constant state of uncertainty of their status being revoked. Amidst the quagmire of US immigration law, it is understandable why President Biden would grant TPS to Ukrainians. Still, TPS is merely a Band-Aid for a fundamentally broken system. 

A good start to fixing this system is to create a way for those granted TPS to gain legal permanent residency more easily. Fortunately, this is a plan the Biden administration, along with House Democrats, have already introduced. President Biden has requested that Congress work on legislation that would allow TPS recipients to attain permanent residency directly through the program, reaffirming his commitment to helping refugees despite fewer and fewer of them actually being admitted to the United States. He has proposed to allow TPS recipients to apply for a Green Card immediately upon receiving their status. These changes would also make TPS holders eligible to apply for citizenship only three years after receiving their Green Card, an accelerated timeline compared to most Green Card holders. 

Granting Ukrainian refugees TPS is merely a temporary solution to the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Still, increased political scrutiny of TPS could pave the way for real, necessary changes in the usage of TPS and the treatment of TPS recipients. The Biden administration’s new push to reform TPS could fundamentally improve the lives of those with TPS designation. Hopefully, it will be a step in the right direction in terms of revitalizing the United States’s floundering treatment of asylum seekers from across the world.