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Salvadorans want Congress to address their legal limbo

 TPS holders in Charlotte advocate for a path to legal residency during a demonstration in February 2019.
TPS Alliance Committe of Charlotte
TPS holders in Charlotte advocate for a path to legal residency during a demonstration in February 2019.

An immigration proposal backed by North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis would create a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented people, but not all. As Congress enters its closing weeks, members of North Carolina’s Salvadoran community are pushing for recognition of their decades-long history in the country.

Arenivar Cruz is one of them. The Charlotte-area resident has lived in the United States for 22 years.

In 1990, his birthplace, El Salvador, was facing a civil war, and that's when it received its first Temporary Protected Status designation by Congress. Over the years, the program has allowed many Salvadorans to remain in the U.S. and avoid instability back home.

As legal, tax-paying workers, Salvadorans and other Central American TPS holders have contributed a lot during their time in the U.S., Cruz said.

“But there’s uncertainty for us. We don’t know what will happen or what will come tomorrow,” he said.

TPS hinges on the assumption that status holders will eventually return to their home country. For many nationalities, like Salvadorans, however, the conditions back home have remained complicated for a long time.

El Salvador isn’t ready to take back its nearly 194,000 citizens who hold TPS in the U.S., Cruz said, adding that many people are still trying to leave the country.

As a member of the TPS Alliance Committee of Charlotte, Cruz has advocated for a legislative solution for people like him. But a bipartisan immigration proposal, backed by Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema ( I- A riz.) , doesn’t consider a pathway to legal residency for Central American TPS holders.

“They’ve left us in limbo,” Cru z said. “The promises made to us have been false.”

The Tillis-Sinema framework, first reported by the Washington Post, would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children, known as "Dreamers," but not for people like Cruz.

Nearly 13,000 TPS holders reside in North Carolina, according to the Congressional Research Service. Many are Central Americans who fled armed conflict in the 1980s and '90s, explained attorney Cynthia Aziz.

“North Carolina has a high number of Central Americans, probably one of the highest percentages in the country,” Aziz said. “When many Central Americans came here back in the '80s, during the civil war in their countries, they were working in textile mills and poultry factories in western North Carolina.”

Decades later, these Central American workers have established roots in North Carolina, Aziz said, but their opportunities are stunted by their legal status.

“They can't make the decisions that those of us that have full rights in this country can make,” she said. “It's hard explaining this to their children. Why can't they freely travel? Why do they have to get permission for everything? Because that's what they've had to do for all these years. To get permission to work. Get permission to drive.”

Cruz is brought to tears by the idea of deportation and separating from his 12-year-old child, who was born in the United States .

“He’s going to need me for a lot of things,” Cruz said. “And that’s why we’re here. That’s why we continue fighting.”

TPS holders from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras and Nepal are currently protected until June 30, 2024, as two TPS-related court cases make their way through the judicial system.

Tillis' office did not respond to our requests for comment.

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Kayla Young