Fernando Flores drives a trailer near the Ox Mountain Sanitary Landfill in San Mateo County, Calif. on May 29, 2020. (Beth La Berge/KQED)
As millions of Californians were ordered to stay home in March, Fernando Flores, 44, kept heading to work six days a week at San Mateo County’s only active landfill.
Flores, who immigrated from El Salvador, said he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to drive a 64-foot long trailer, transporting hundreds of gallons of contaminated liquid from trash at the Ox Mountain Sanitary Landfill to wastewater treatment plants. During other shifts, Flores picks up garbage and compost from homes in Half Moon Bay.
“I’m proud to be part of an industry that’s essential,” Flores said. He's been an employee of the waste management company Republic Services for about 16 years. “It’s a service that’s needed every day. We don’t stop.”
But Flores and more than 100,000 essential workers who are immigrants could be at risk of deportation, as President Donald Trump’s administration continues a years-long fight to end the humanitarian protections that allows them to live and work in the U.S.
“These are the people that are keeping our country moving right now,” Svajlenka said. “They are the people that keep our grocery shelves stocked, the people that keep our streets clean, and they are doing this knowing that at any moment their future in the United States could change.”
Congress created the TPS program in 1990 to provide humanitarian relief to immigrants already present in the U.S. who were not able to return safely to countries ravaged by war and natural disasters.
The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security designates which nationals are eligible for the protections. After periodic review, the agency may extend the status, generally every six to 18 months. Immigrants from El Salvador have been eligible for TPS for nearly 20 years.
But starting in 2017, DHS issued a series of orders ending this protected status for most holders, claiming the humanitarian relief was no longer needed because the original conditions that led to the designations had been resolved.
“It matches an overall Trump administration approach of being very strict in the application of immigration laws, and very narrow in the discretion and grant of relief and immigration,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, who has followed the program for years.
TPS holders and their U.S. citizen children in California and other states sued, arguing DHS broke practice with previous administrations, and its terminations of the program were unlawful and motivated by Trump’s hostility against Black and brown immigrants.
The courts have kept the program alive while they consider the dispute, but that could change with a highly anticipated ruling by a three-judge panel at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, which is expected soon.
Ahilan Arulanantham, lead plaintiff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said if the appeals judges side with the administration, TPS holders might request the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue.
“We would have to examine the grounds of any decision before committing to further steps,” Arulanantham said. “But it is hard to imagine not seeking every possible avenue of relief available to protect the 400,000 TPS holders and the roughly 300,000 school-age American children whose lives are at stake in this decision.”
Salvadorans represent the largest group of TPS beneficiaries, and often have built their lives in the U.S. over more than two decades. There are also many who are parents to U.S. citizen children, and own homes and businesses. Households with TPS members collectively pay about $3.6 billion in taxes per year, said Svajlenka.
For years, immigrants with TPS have pushed Congress for more permanent protections. Last spring, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) introduced the American Dream and Promise Act, which would offer a path to U.S. citizenship to beneficiaries of TPS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The House of Representatives passed the bill, but the Senate has not taken it up yet.
“This bill has now been languishing in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard for one full year,” wrote Roybal-Allard and two cosponsors of the bill in an op-ed last week. “In the middle of a pandemic, when hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and TPS holders are risking their lives to support our communities… we cannot allow these individuals to live with this fear and uncertainty any longer.”
While a limited extension of TPS was included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act this past spring, it didn’t make it into the final legislation Trump signed.
"The prospects are not easy," said Yanira Arias, national campaign manager with Alianza Americas and a TPS holder from El Salvador. "We are paying attention to the political landscape and see that it may not work in our favor... But we continue to push back."
Flores, the garbage truck driver, said he often feels that TPS holders are just not a priority for federal lawmakers, particularly as the country faces the pandemic and historically high unemployment.
“Nobody cares about us, not Congress nor the President,” said Flores.
Since the courts halted TPS terminations for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan, DHS has extended their work authorization until January 4, 2021. Flores said he is keenly aware of the approaching date.
His partner and young daughter, who just finished elementary school, are U.S. citizens who depend on his salary, he said. That income will disappear if he has to return to El Salvador, a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, according to Human Rights Watch.
“It would be devastating, emotionally and financially,” said Flores, who has lived in the U.S. for 21 years.