Truck driver Jesus Perlera, 39, puts in long days transporting grocery products from the Port of Oakland to warehouses and supermarkets — work deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic.
Perlera, an immigrant from El Salvador, has lived for two decades in the United States. But his right to be here, and his permit to work, depend on a humanitarian protection — known as temporary protected status (TPS) — that President Trump has been fighting to end for nationals from El Salvador and five other countries.
Throughout Trump's presidency, Perlera has spent many sleepless nights at his home in Concord, worrying that if his TPS ends, he could lose his business and be separated from his two U.S.-born children.
So when Joe Biden won the presidential election earlier this month, signaling a sea change in immigration policy, Perlera was deeply relieved.
“I felt an enormous amount of peace,” Perlera said in Spanish. “I feel more relaxed and calm. Now I hope this new Biden administration fulfills what it has promised us.”
Perlera is one of nearly a quarter of a million immigrants in California — including an estimated 85,000 essential workers — whose temporary permits to live and work in the U.S. could be protected under Biden. The president-elect is expected to use his executive power to reverse many of Trump’s attempts to crackdown on immigration, including his efforts to strip TPS from most recipients and to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that benefits hundreds of thousands of young undocumented people known as Dreamers.
While Biden has also promised to pursue a broader immigration reform bill that grants a pathway to citizenship to all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — including DACA and TPS holders — succeeding in that effort will be a much heavier lift.
For one thing, to pass legislation, Biden will need a majority of votes in the Senate, which he is not guaranteed to have. But the new president will also have to wrestle with more pressing priorities at the beginning of his administration, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
“The pandemic is going to dominate the oxygen for at least one year,” said Chishti. “The presidency will have very little time to do anything in a focused way on anything other than health and economic issues.”
Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also took office with strong mandates to create paths to citizenship for many of the nation’s undocumented immigrants, Chishti noted, but their first terms were consumed instead with crises: the 9/11 attacks for Bush and the Great Recession for Obama.
“Biden is inheriting another piece of bad luck here. Just imagine, with a high unemployment rate, how do you argue for legalizing 11 million people?” he said. “It's a very hard sell, and therefore, I consider that kind of big immigration bill very difficult in the short run.”
But immigrant advocates have vowed to press Biden to deliver permanent residency — the path to citizenship — for DACA and TPS holders, most of whom have established deep roots in the U.S.
Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in San Francisco, said it won’t be enough for the next president to merely restore the temporary protections to the way they were before Trump tried to end them.
By law, TPS is granted in set periods of time ranging from six to 18 months. DACA recipients must reapply for the protections every two years.
“Landing us on the status quo will be a good start,” said Dugan-Cuadra. “We only see it as a short-term action to provide immediate relief, but we will not accept anything other than a legislative path for permanency for both Dreamers and TPS.”
Federal courts have delayed efforts by the Trump administration to rescind TPS for more than 400,000 people from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan. But this fall, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Trump, ruling that the president could move forward with the terminations.
Plaintiffs in that case, a group of TPS holders and their U.S. citizen children, plan to ask a larger panel of the 9th Circuit to review the decision. The earliest that immigration officials could rescind work permits for nationals of El Salvador would be November 2021. Immigrants from the other impacted countries could see their protections expire as soon as March, said ACLU attorney Ahilan Arulanantham, who represents plaintiffs in the case.
The courts have also intervened to keep DACA alive for nearly 650,000 recipients. But the Trump administration stopped accepting first-time applicants after it announced it was rescinding the program in 2017.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Trump administration did not follow the law when it tried to end DACA. Since then, the federal government has refused to accept new applications, despite lower court rulings mandating that they do so.
The Migration Policy Institutes estimates that, in addition to current DACA recipients, another 685,000 young people are eligible to apply to the program.
Most DACA and TPS recipients work and pay an estimated $5.5 billion in taxes per year, according to New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization. Many work in fields that have been deemed essential during the pandemic, including health care, education, elder care, construction and food production and distribution.
In California, about 27,700 TPS holders and 56,900 DACA recipients hold such front-line jobs, according to the Center for American Progress.
Like truck driver Jesus Perlera, San Jose resident Karla Lopez is also an essential worker. DACA has allowed Lopez, 27, to work as a certified nursing assistant, and to enroll in a registered nursing program at a local community college.
The California Board of Registered Nursing requires students to have a Social Security number, something Lopez didn’t have before she applied for DACA in 2012, the year Obama created it.
“DACA has helped me so much for all the jobs that I’ve had,” said Lopez, whose father brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 10, and who is now raising two children of her own. “It has opened a lot of doors for me.”
Lopez cares for elderly people at a nursing home. She says she kept working through the pandemic, even while pregnant, despite the risk of getting the virus and bringing it home to her 4-year-old son.
“It was really scary,” said Lopez, who is currently on maternity leave after giving birth to her second baby. “But you know what? It's my job. And that's what I signed up for.”
Lopez said Biden’s election has made her feel like she belongs in America again, after constantly fearing for her future during the Trump administration. She hopes DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants can one day become U.S. citizens.
“We’ve been here for so long,” she said. “This is pretty much my house, it’s where I’ve been living most of my life.”
Perlera, who arrived in the U.S. at age 18, also wants the contributions of immigrants like himself to lead to more permanent protections.
“I thank this country for giving me opportunities,” said Perlera, who as a kid dreamed of becoming a truck driver. “Because in my home country of El Salvador there aren’t opportunities like there are here.”
During the past three years, when Perlera considered the possibility of deportation, he decided he would not take his children back to El Salvador, where gang violence and poverty are rampant.
“I want my children to have a good life, not like the life I had,” he said. “My life growing up was really difficult.”
One of seven siblings, Perlera said he was still a young boy when his father died, forcing him at the age of 7 to start working in the fields, cultivating coffee, rice and other crops. He didn’t make it past the sixth grade at school, he said.
Now, Perlera is proud to own his own business, and just finished paying off more than $80,000 for the used Freightliner truck he purchased. After so many years in this country, he would like the stability of becoming a lawful permanent resident.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in another four years,” he said. “What if there’s another Republican president and we go back to the same situation of facing the risk of deportation?”
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