Mariano Guzman and Mirna Medina stand at a legal consultation event for beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status at the Salvadoran Consulate in San Francisco on Jan. 13, 2018. Guzman, a truck driver for a waste management company, said his employer let him go after his work authorization document expired. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Mariano Guzman has worked as a truck driver for a San Francisco Bay Area waste management company for 17 years. But last month, the 55-year-old Honduran immigrant got a major surprise when he showed up for his job south of San Francisco.
Guzman's employer said he couldn't keep his job because his work authorization document had just expired.
"It really affects me a lot," Guzman said. He attended a free legal consultation event in San Francisco after he had spent a week without pay. "I depend on my job to make my mortgage payments and pay all the bills to support my family."
In fact, Hondurans with Temporary Protected Status like Guzman are still able to legally work. The Department of Homeland Security automatically extended work authorizations until July 2018 for those who re-register for the program. New individual work permits can take months to arrive in the mail.
Employees and Employers Grapple With Uncertainty Over Immigrant Work Permits
As President Trump's administration winds down the program that gives protected status to over 300,000 people from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Haiti nationwide, immigration attorneys worry an already complex and shifting landscape of work authorization rules could become more baffling for employers.
"Employers need to be aware of all these changes," said Cyrus Mehta, an immigration attorney who works with corporate clients. "When the administration is trying to terminate programs that are inherently temporary and they get extended, it could cause more confusion for employers."
It can be a tricky situation for inexperienced human resources staff. Employers usually rely on work authorization documents provided by the employee to verify their legal status. But if employers wrongfully terminate workers who still have TPS work authorization, they could become liable to discrimination lawsuits, Mehta said.
The issue can usually be clarified with a letter to employers, said Ramon Cardona, who directs Centro Latino Cuzcatlan. The organization offers immigration services to hundreds of TPS holders in the Bay Area.
"We highlight the part that the government is saying 'this is good for six more months' and we tell them: Give them that," Cardona said, referring to information on TPS for Hondurans also available on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. "And that should be enough. Usually, it's enough."
That is how Guzman was able to regain his job and compensation for the workdays lost at Recology, the trash company where he works.
"For us this is a constant learning experience on understanding and keeping track of deadlines, when things are going to get reauthorized," said Eric Potashner, vice president of Recology, which employs about 3,500 people. "There are a lot more moving parts that a company like ours has never had to deal with before."
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced in January that TPS is ending in 2019 for Salvadorans, the largest group of beneficiaries.
The agency announced in November that Nicaraguans and Haitians are also losing the special status. Some observers expect Nielsen to terminate the status for Honduran immigrants as well.
Potashner said if an employee like Guzman loses his work permit, his company would have to front the additional costs of recruiting and training a replacement.
"Mr. Guzman has worked for us for some time now and understands the operation, understands how to efficiently do the job," Potashner said. "So absolutely there will be costs to the business if folks like Mr. Guzman can no longer be employed and we fill the position with new employees."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is urging the Trump administration to keep TPS for Hondurans and immigrants from other nations, saying businesses in the U.S. need a stable workforce.
Neil Bradley, the chamber's executive vice president, wrote to the DHS that industries affected by the potential loss of TPS workers include construction, hospitality and food processing.
"The loss of employment authorization for these populations would adversely impact several key industries where TPS recipients make up a significant amount of the workforce," Bradley said.
For more than 25 years, the U.S. government has granted TPS to people from countries devastated by natural disasters or wrecked by armed conflict. The program allows beneficiaries to work and live in the U.S. If the federal government deems these immigrants are not able to return safely to their nations of origin, the status is usually extended six to 18 months.
TPS extensions for Hondurans and other Central American nations have added up to 17 years or more.
"I am extremely worried," the father of eight said. "If they end TPS for Hondurans, I lose everything I've worked for, like my home. Right now I'm saving money in a 401K and paying for life insurance. It'd be fatal to lose my job."
Guzman doesn't want to return to Honduras because intense crime, political instability and high unemployment are gripping that country.
This month, he took a break from his job manually dumping hundreds of trash and recycling bins daily across residential neighborhoods, and traveled to Washington, D.C., with other immigrants as part of the National TPS Alliance. They are trying to convince GOP lawmakers to let people with TPS get on a path to citizenship, he said.
"I'm still hopeful there's an immigration reform that benefits us all," Guzman said.