They came to America to protect themselves. Now they want to stay.

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In 1998, when he was 22 years old, José Villegas left El Salvador for the United States.

He spent much of his teenage years avoiding entanglements with the infamous Salvadoran international gang, MS-13. “The crime was getting worse,” Villegas said. “A lot of people, like me, must have escaped the MS-13 because they were still there.”

For Villegas, moving to the United States was an obvious choice. He saw poverty and unemployment everywhere as he grew up in El Salvador, and university graduates there were not always better off – the majority of them often did not find jobs even afterwards. to have completed their studies.

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Jose Villegas, left, tends tomatoes in his garden with his youngest daughter, Yulisa Villegas, 10. “Find a job, earn money and have something in the future,” Villegas said. this is what I have. Now I own it.

Villegas, now 45, lives in Hartford with his wife and two children, works in construction and pays the mortgage – safe from the dangers of life in El Salvador, but still without the peace he sought – the peace that comes with becoming a permanent resident.

Villegas and hundreds of thousands of others had their lives in the United States linked to the volatility of their status as “temporary residents”. They have continuously pressured congressional lawmakers to pass legislation that would grant them permanent legal status, but that goal seems increasingly unattainable with the recent Supreme Court ruling to deny green cards to entered immigrants. illegally in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security grants Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to people born in countries experiencing an ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster or epidemic, or other temporary conditions that make living conditions almost unbearable. . Villegas has been on the TPS since President George W. Bush’s administration made the citizens of El Salvador eligible for the TPS in 2001 following a succession of devastating earthquakes.

When the Trump administration removed TPS eligibility for people from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador in 2017, Villegas and about 5,000 other TPS recipients traveled to Washington, DC, to protest as the nascent TPS National Alliance. Today, Villegas is one of the leaders of a Connecticut-based National TPS Alliance team.

For Villegas, pleading for the protections of the TPS community is nothing new. Even though the Supreme Court’s decision to restrict access to green cards for immigrants seeking permanent legal status appears to be a setback, Villegas sees it as a chance for TPS holders to be heard.

“If we still have TPS benefits, it’s because we’ve lived the way the United States wants us to live under the law,” Villegas said. “So many people with long-standing TPS started doing bad things, and obviously they got kicked out. We still have it because we live under the law. We are not criminals.

Villegas, the TPS Alliance and some people from the allied organization 32BJ, a workers’ union, held a vigil in Hartford outside Senator Richard Blumenthal’s office on June 9.

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Yulisa Villegas, 10, enjoys the breeze in the back of her father’s truck before the storm hits. Villegas said she was worried about her parents’ visa situation. “I’m scared because I know there is a risk that my parents will be deported,” she said. “I try not to think about it too much, I trust the president to give them all residency.”

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Jose Villegas is seated with his wife, Cruz Villegas, and his daughters. “The little ones are the priority for me, because in reality, if I didn’t have the children, my brain would be different,” Villegas said. “I see stories of people who have separated. I don’t want to be in these shoes.

While Villegas and TPS Alliance continue to push for permanent legal status, others have not been so fortunate.

Fausto Canelas, 63, lives in Bridgeport. He came to the United States from Honduras, where he owned a farm, in 1996. Local extortionists took his money and threatened his family.

Canelas and his wife, Miriam, left behind their four children, the eldest now 36 and the youngest 28, in Honduras. “Sadly, we were detained at the border between the United States and Mexico,” Canelas said. “We were deported, but I was sent to Guatemala for some reason. We didn’t have the money to come back together, so I came alone.

Canelas crossed the border and found accommodation with his sister-in-law in Houston, but soon moved to Connecticut to live with his brother in Bridgeport. After a year of working as a janitor in schools and office buildings, he was able to save enough money to send Miriam to live with him. She arrived in the United States just before Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras.

When the Clinton administration designated Honduras for the TPS in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch ravaged much of the country, Canelas and Miriam both managed to get their temporary status. For two years, Canelas continued to work as a janitor at Weston for $ 6 an hour, while Miriam worked at a McDonald’s. Then, in 2001, Miriam returned to Honduras to care for their children, and once again, Canelas was on her own.

Over the past 20 years, he has sent the little money he earns home to support his family, but has only seen them a handful of times. Canelas last saw his family in 2014 when he requested special permission to leave the United States to visit his mother before her death. “Permission was not granted until after his death,” Canelas said.

Like Villegas, Canelas says he has done everything he can to live a safe and law-abiding life in the United States in the hopes that his criminal record will one day make it easier for him to obtain permanent residence. . He still hopes to bring Miriam and their children to live here, Canelas said.

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Yulisa Villegas, 10, holds her mother’s hands while watching TV. Jose Villegas said his daughters often ask what happens if the American Dream and Promise Act is not passed and whether they will have to return to El Salvador.

Fortunately, thanks to the union I belong to, 32BJ, I was able to do what I could to try and change my status, such as going to Washington, DC, to speak with Senators and Congressmen about our situation. “Canelas said. “But we managed to do very little.

There are over 400,000 GST holders nationwide who come from a set of 12 eligible countries. According to New American Economy, there are 522,787 immigrant residents in Connecticut, and approximately 3,200 of them have TPS.

The first few months of Joe Biden’s presidency saw many restored protections for GST holders that were removed over the past two years. But there is also an increased urgency for HR 6, the American Dream and Promise Act, to go through the Senate.

The Dream and Promise Act would offer undocumented migrants a path to conditional permanent residence. The law would benefit Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who received protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but it would also help people with GST. With this law in place, the only condition of permanent residence for both groups would be to receive an education and find a job.

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Cruz Villegas, left, sits with his youngest daughter, Yulisa Villegas, 10, watching TV. Cruz works as a waitress on weekends to take care of her children while her husband works during the week. “You have to sacrifice family time to survive,” said Jose Villegas.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it would cost taxpayers $ 35.3 billion in the first 10 years after the adoption of HR 6. However, according to a 2019 statement from the Center for American Progress, Eligible immigrants own about 1,600 Connecticut homes and pay $ 30.2 million in annual mortgage payments. These households pay $ 249.5 million in federal taxes and $ 135.4 million in state and local taxes each year.

Each year, an estimated $ 856.2 million in purchasing power is generated by immigrant households eligible for protection under HR6, which passed in the House on March 18.

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Jose and Cruz Villegas stroke their cat. “There are opportunities for them (their daughters) here,” said Jose. “We just have to support them and give them what we can… If we have permanent status here, we will feel so crowded with ourselves. At the moment, we are stressed.

Blumenthal advocated for the protection of the Dreamers and said he also wanted the TPS community to be protected. “People with TPS deserve a quick and easy path to acquired citizenship,” Senator Blumenthal said in an email.

“Without effective legislative solutions, TPS recipients may be forced to return to the volatile and dangerous conditions in which they first fled. I will continue to be a strong advocate for the passage of bills like the Citizenship Act and the SECURE Act to make the dream of US citizenship a reality for those with TPS status, ”said Blumenthal.


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