Bay Area Teen Awaits Ruling on Humanitarian Protections for Mom and Other Immigrants

Crista Ramos stands at Marina Park in Richmond on July 7, 2020. She is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to stop the Trump administration from ending Temporary Protected Status.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Before the pandemic, Crista Ramos, 16, devoted her weekends to soccer practice and games around the Bay Area with her team, the Richmond Lionesses.

All that was canceled due to the coronavirus. Now, Ramos spends her days at home in San Pablo, with her parents and 13-year-old brother. But far from regretting it, Ramos said she is grateful.

"We are trying to look on the bright side of things," Ramos said, a high school junior who was born and raised in the Bay Area. "The coronavirus has given us more time to be home, as a family. So we’ve had more time to do things together."

Ramos is painfully aware that her family may not be able to stay together. She is one of roughly 300,000 United States citizen children whose parents could face deportation if the Trump administration prevails in a legal fight over humanitarian protections known as Temporary Protected Status or TPS.

And Ramos is the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, Ramos v. Nielsen, aiming to stop the Trump administration from ending TPS for more than 400,000 immigrants nationwide, including Ramos' mother.

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A three-judge panel at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue a ruling any day now on whether those TPS holders can continue to live and work in this country while the merits of the case are decided.

"We've been waiting in this limbo of not knowing what's going to happen with our families," Ramos said. "Now, we are getting more anxious because it's been months since the last court hearing, and we haven’t heard anything back."

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Congress created the TPS program in 1990 to provide humanitarian relief to immigrants who couldn’t return safely to countries torn by war and natural disasters.

The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security can designate a country for TPS for periods of six to 18 months, and extend the protections after periodic review. Immigrants from El Salvador who were already here when TPS was first granted, like Ramos' mother, have been eligible for the protections for 19 years.

But starting in 2017, the Trump administration terminated the protections for six countries: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan.

Trump officials claim TPS is no longer needed because the initial earthquakes and other conditions that led to the designations have been resolved.

During court hearings, plaintiff attorneys argued that past administrations looked more broadly at the potentially dangerous conditions of a country and whether it could safely absorb a large number of deportees, to determine whether to continue TPS for that country’s nationals in the U.S.

A federal judge in San Francisco issued an injunction, blocking the administration from ending the program while the case is decided. Now Ramos and thousands of others are looking to the 9th Circuit to keep that injunction in place.

Crista Ramos spends time with her mother Cristina Morales, father Edgar Ramos and brother Diego at Marina Park in Richmond on July 7, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But Ramos and her family are finding hope in another court ruling that favored hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration didn’t follow the law when it tried to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.

"The Supreme Court decision on DACA, it made me feel like I was the one who was winning the case," said Cristina Morales, 39, Crista’s mother and also a plaintiff in the TPS lawsuit. “Very strong. Very happy.”

Like the DACA recipients, TPS plaintiffs argue that the Trump administration ended the relief unlawfully because officials failed to adequately consider the impact on the families, investments and jobs of so many people.

The Supreme Court’s opinion should make it easier for lower courts to find that the government acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it revoked TPS, said Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law.

"I think the DACA decision will have a very significant impact on the way that the 9th Circuit looks at this case," Johnson said.

Another argument shared by plaintiffs in both cases is that the Trump administration was motivated by racial animus against non-white immigrants. The Supreme Court majority said DACA plaintiffs lacked enough evidence to win on this “equal protection” claim.

But Johnson believes Ramos and the other TPS plaintiffs have stronger evidence than the DACA recipients had.

In January of 2018, shortly after ending TPS for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti, Trump referred to them as coming from “shithole countries,” in a meeting with lawmakers at the Oval Office. Trump also suggested he would prefer more immigrants from predominantly white countries such as Norway.

“That sounds like racial animus,” Johnson said.

If the 9th Circuit sides with the administration, impacted TPS holders would lose their work permits on Jan. 4, 2021. Four months after the appeals court rules, immigrants from Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan would completely lose their protections, while Salvadorans would have at least a year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Haitians are also waiting on a ruling in a second lawsuit, but if they lose that as well, they would become deportable after 120 days.

For Ramos, and her brother, Diego, keeping their mother in the country has become even more important since last summer. Diego was diagnosed with a rare, slow-growing cancer, angiomatoid fibrous histiocytoma, that is treated with surgery.

Diego has undergone three surgeries to remove tumors, and more could be needed, Ramos said.

"If my mom had to go back to El Salvador, she wouldn't be able to be here for her son," Ramos said. "It'd be difficult, not only in terms of trauma, but his health now depends on it."

Her brother’s illness has motivated Ramos to work even harder to find a lasting way for her family to stay together, such as joining a years-long battle to push Congress to grant TPS holders a path to citizenship.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would do just that: the American Dream and Promise Act, introduced by Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA). But the Republican-controlled Senate has not taken it up yet, and Roybal-Allard blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for blocking the bill.

In the two years since she first sued the Trump administration, Ramos has become an outspoken advocate with the National TPS Alliance, starring in Facebook videos and radio shows in Spanish. She shares lessons with other TPS families that she says she learned from her mom: stay positive and keep fighting.

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"I've met a lot of children who are also in this situation [of] losing their parents," Ramos said. "So that's given me more courage to be able to speak out because I know that I'm not the only one in this fight."