Immigrants Among Us: Part One

This is the first of three interviews in our Immigration series. The purpose of the series is take a closer look at how national immigration policies are affecting students at Juniata High School. Because of the sensitive legal issues surrounding immigration, the names of the students have been withheld.

The following interview features a student whose mother is facing the expiration of the TPS designation for immigrants from El Salvador. Aside from some minor editing for grammar and clarity, this is her story in her own words.

What is TPS and why is it given to an individual?  TPS stands for Temporary Protected Status and is usually awarded by the United States government to an individual after some significant natural disaster or other major event has happened in her native country and is intended to help that individual get back on her feet after such an event. My mom came to the United States from El Salvador in 2001 with TPS.

What is the concern for your family now that the TPS is set to expire? For my family, the concern is will we have enough time to be able to secure another way to keep my mother here in the U.S. and not be deported? The TPS for immigrants from El Salvador will expire in March, and then we will have 18 months to try to figure something out before she will have to leave the U.S.

What were conditions like in El Salvador when your mother left? Have they changed or improved since then? Conditions were awful for her when she left her country because at the time a war was going on and horror was all around. Then a few years later an earthquake came and killed more people. Violence was a daily occurrence back then with gangs and crime.

Conditions have improved a little since then because gangs have calmed down a bit in different regions, but the gangs still exist. They are just hiding better. Most El Salvadorans don’t go to college and only stay in school through 9th grade. It can be hard to make a living there, and those with jobs only make about $8 a day.

What is the financial toll? The financial toll of trying to find another way for my mother to stay in the U.S. legally is a lot. My family has spent over $8,000 between lawyer fees and paperwork, and we are spending more for the hope that she will be granted permanent status in the time that is left. Just renewing the TPS costs about $500 each time, and it has to be renewed every 18 months.

What is the emotional toll of this situation? The emotional toll of the situation is that my family is emotionally stressed and exhausted with so many papers and steps to take just so my mother can stay here. Before President Trump announced that the TPS would end, we had the feeling that might be the case, so we tried last year to start the process early. The process has been long and tiring. When the current administration started to talk about how they were going to remove TPS, my mother became a bit hysterical, trying to do whatever possible to stay here. There were nights she wept, saying she did not want go back.

My role as a bilingual child who has had to take on, since the age of eight, the responsibility of making sure my mother is alright has been hard emotionally. At some point the responsibility for her immigration status and other factors (such as family, home finance issues, and school) piled up, and I developed depression with anxiety at a young age. I had to see a psychologist to help treat myself, and to this day I’m still taking medication. Emotionally, for a child to be in this situation, it becomes too much, and as a child you have to grow up faster than others because you realize how the world really is. Your childish fantasies disappear fast, and all you focus on is the welfare of those around you. At some point you stop taking care of yourself emotionally. I am also the “pillar” of the family, which in my case means that I can’t show weaknesses emotionally because if I show them it is an indicator that the “pillar” is falling apart and that cannot happen. 

Is there a path to American citizenship for someone who is here under TPS? There are a couple ways for someone to get citizenship; however, they all are difficult to acquire. One way is if a relative has a U.S.-born child or close relative  in the U.S. who is at least 21 years old and can petition for you. The form is called I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. This petition is common among immigrants and can get a person a Green Card to the U.S. That is the method our family is using for my mother, but from what we can tell it’s going to take a little over a year to see if my mother has been accepted. There were many more steps that were taken before we got to this stage, but it took about a year for us to finally get to this stage.

Worst case scenario: what happens to your family if your mother has to return to El Salvador? If my mother has to return back to her country, I would have to postpone my plans for college and try to attend in the next five years or so. During those five years I would have to work and try to find her a safe place to live in El Salvador and make sure she has her meals. My brothers would probably have to put on hold their plans for college as well since our mother is the one who helps us financially go to college. A lot of things would happen to my family since my mom is a single mother, and if she is not here all of us are going to be more financially burdened. If worst comes to worst, I would give up my dream of being a teacher and translator and would just work full-time as a laborer.  

What do you wish people knew about immigrant families? Immigrant families are not all bad people. Most of them fled a country to escape the gangs and violence. People don’t realize the amount of fear that exists for people living in those countries. Immigrant families don't make much money in their native country and at times go hungry just so their kids can have at least water and bread for supper. While on my trip to El Salvador I met a family member who works two jobs and only got about fours of sleep every day before he had to go back to work. That family member only earns about $500 a month, and he has two kids to take care of. Immigrant families are not evil and want to feel safe and secure; they want to know that they won't have to be afraid of a gunshot around the corner every hour or have to hide for fear of their lives. Immigrant families deserve to be here like everyone else, so please be understanding of our situation and help us.

Have your feelings about the United States changed throughout this experience? Personally, my feelings about the U.S. have changed since I don’t feel as secure as I used to. The causing factor of that is that I’m not 100% sure I’ll be with my mother safely, especially since many immigrant families are not even 100% safe with a Green Card. The fear of it all is that the government might try to take away all possible routes for immigrant families to stay together here.

Mrs. Heidenreich is an English teacher at Juniata High School.

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