White letters reading “National TPS Alliance On Hunger Strike For #ResidencyNow #TPSJustice” cover bright blue banners and T-shirts, and foldable chairs and tents sprinkle the ground outside Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. — the scene is set for a movement determined to create change.
Local immigrants and Harrisonburg residents are heading to Washington, D.C., later this month to take part in a hunger strike in hopes that it’ll lead to immigration reform and protection for immigrant populations.
Crimson Solano came to America from Honduras in 1998 through Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that allows migrants from countries facing widespread violence or natural disasters to live and work in the U.S. Since then, he said he’s been anxiously reapplying every 12 to 18 months and hoping the U.S. would extend the TPS program for Honduras.
“The problem is that for us, our life, our [families] are not temporary,” Solano said. “For 22 years, the U.S. government has been extending our status. Why? Because there is enough reason for them to believe that the problem that we’re running away from still exists in the home country.”
TPS has to be regularly extended for selected countries through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Throughout 2017-18, the DHS terminated TPS for several countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, according to press releases from the DHS.
The terminations of several TPS programs have been put on hold by two court cases, Ramos v. Nielsen and Bhattarai v. Nielsen, but Solano said the litigation is ongoing. He said this gives TPS holders the choice between leaving their homes or “living in the shadows.”
“I would have to, within six months, say goodbye to my friends, say goodbye to my job, say goodbye to my life as I know for 22 years, pack my bag and go back where I came from,” Solano said.
Beginning March 19 and lasting 43 days, committees and allies from the National TPS Alliance are taking part in a hunger strike rotating out members in small numbers to ensure safety amid COVID-19. Solano, Harrisonburg resident Kamilo Rivera and fellow TPS holder and Harrisonburg resident Digna Barahona are traveling to Washington, D.C., to participate in the hunger strike from April 15-17. Barahona was unavailable to speak with The Breeze for an interview.
Rivera came to America under political asylum from El Salvador in 1989 and is an advocate for the immigrant community. Rivera is the head of the Harrisonburg National TPS Alliance, a group focused on advocacy for TPS holders.
Rivera said the group is participating in the hunger strike to push the U.S. Senate to pass bills to protect TPS holders and give them a pathway to citizenship and permanent residency.
“The Republican Senate and Democrats, they need to work; we’re going to send a strong message to them,” Rivera said. “They need to work and help the people help these communities, dreamers, TPS holders, the refugees, all these kinds of people … they deserve a permanent solution.”
The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, a bill that would create pathways to citizenship for individuals with different immigrant statutes, passed in the House of Representatives after a similar bill failed in the Senate in 2019. Solano said this is the “perfect” time for the Senate to pass the bill and create changes in the immigration system.
“There is no excuse; the Democrats basically have the majority in the Senate, House and they have the White House,” Solano said. “They have control and they have promised that they will be our champions, they have promised they will do what’s right.”
There are approximately 411,000 TPS holders in the U.S. from 10 countries as of October 2020, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Solano said there are 2,000 TPS holders that work, live and pay taxes in the Shenandoah Valley.
According to The Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at the University of Southern California, TPS holders contribute more than $4.6 billion to federal, state and local taxes and more than $35.2 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Rivera said TPS holders work in the community, run businesses and own houses.
“They don’t know another country,” Rivera said. “This is their country; they love the United States. They said to me, ‘I love the United States because this is my house; This is my land where God put me to live.’”
Both Solano and Rivera discussed the shift in immigration policy in 2016 after former President Donald Trump was elected. Rivera said that in 2017 when he learned Trump would be suspending programs like TPS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he knew members of the immigrant community needed to organize to support TPS holders. Rivera said they felt “a lot of hate” at the time.
“We want to change in the community, too, because the community … [needs] to understand people from different countries coming to the United States, they’re not coming because they want to be relaxing,” Rivera said. “They come in because they want a different kind of life … That’s why we demand justice.”
Solano said their community “survived four years of terror,” and now there’s a better opportunity for things to change.
“The moment that somebody with such power, like the United States president, decided to attack a race — It’s not right and it’s not what the United States is about, so we fought that,” Solano said.
Rivera said that despite some changes since the 2020 election, large changes in immigration reform still haven’t happened. Solano said that though symbolic changes have happened since the election, these changes wouldn’t protect his family.
“We are open to any means that will get us where we want to be, which is having a path to citizenship,” Solano said. “But, we also want the administration to do what’s right to re-establish TPS protection for our country for those 13 countries that were denied.”
According to a press briefing on Feb. 3, reinstating TPS for countries that were terminated is under review. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said President Biden “has talked about his own commitment to reinstating TPS in certain cases,” but said the review hasn’t been completed yet.
In an email to the Breeze, a spokesman for Kaine said the senator is urging congress to pass immigration reform that would create a path to citizenship for TPS holders and DACA recipients.
Warner said in an email to the Breeze from Warner’s press secretary that despite TPS holders working and living within their communities, they live with the knowledge that they could be forced to leave their home.
“As I’ve said before, TPS recipients deserve long-term stability,” Warner said in the email. “I plan to continue urging the Biden administration to protect these individuals and provide a path to citizenship to the hardworking people who enrich our nation and have lived here for years.”
Rivera encouraged JMU students and the community to get involved with groups in Harrisonburg fighting for immigration reform. Solano said the community can call Virginia elected officials, like Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D), to advocate and help amplify their voices.
“We want them to see past our skin color … don’t look at us as the way we got here,” Solano said. “What we would like the community to do is to rally behind us because we’re part of the community … we want them to stand up with us — that’s the only way we can get it done."
Contact Ashlyn Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.