Belinda Osorio Hanzman chokes up at the thought of having to leave her two children behind in Florida if she is forced to go back to Honduras, the country where she was born, but one she no longer knows.
“I’ll have to go back without them,” she said, pausing, in tears. “This is very difficult.”
Hanzman, 50, crossed the southern border illegally in 1991, living first in New York City, then moving to the Orlando area. She is married to an American. Their children, a son, 16, and a daughter, 13, were born here, making them citizens. She has a job — which allows her to support her mother in Honduras — a family, and a life she loves.
But all that may come to an end. She holds Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a designation given to countries that suffer a disaster or are coping with civil strife. TPS allows people from those countries, who are already in the United States, to remain, since going back could be dangerous. Notably, illegal entry has no bearing on TPS, unless the applicant has a criminal record, experts say.
But the Trump administration has moved to eliminate TPS for certain countries, including Honduras. While federal court injunctions blocked the move — for now — the administration has continued trying to curtail TPS, moving to limit protections for Somali nationals this month. Should the the Trump administration prevail in the courts, Hanzman would lose TPS, meaning she could be deported. If that happens, she will return to Honduras alone, rather than bring her children with her.
“I will sacrifice myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be a single mom like my mother was, and I don’t want my son to grow up without his father. My children don’t know the country or speak the language. It would ruin their lives.”
“Hurricanes come and go quickly, but their after-effects last for many years,” said Hanzman, a housekeeper at Disney World. “This hurricane did a lot of economic damage to Honduras. There is poverty and bad crime that’s gotten worse. The gangs have taken over. It would be impossible for me to find work when I get back.”
Her plight is one shared by thousands of other “climate refugees” displaced by intense hurricanes, drought or flooding, or who fled their homelands to escape war or other turmoil and now face the ravages of climate change should they return. For example, migrants from El Salvador and Haiti were granted TPS after earthquakes rocked those countries in 2001 and 2010, respectively. Those disasters fueled a rise in poverty and violence, which has since been exacerbated by climate change, as worsening drought has led to crop failures in both countries.
As climate change has fueled longstanding instability in vulnerable countries, TPS holders, once welcomed to the United States on a temporary basis, are now seeking extended protection.
“People flee for multiple reasons that are intertwined, such as food and economic security, and conflict over natural resources,” said Royce Bernstein Murray, managing director of programs for the American Immigration Council. “People want to feed their families and survive. Due to climate change and other environmental causes, people move to where food is more secure, where they can support themselves, and where there is peace.”
The Trump administration has tried to revoke TPS for six countries hard hit by climate change — Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Nepal and Sudan. Several lawsuits have contested the administration’s actions. In addition, the United Nations Human Rights Committee recently declared that governments cannot send climate refugees back to their home countries.
The UN ruling is non-binding, however, and there is no reason to believe Trump will respect such a directive. The administration is taking a hard line against expanding TPS to include those who clearly need it, such as people from the Bahamas, which was decimated by Hurricane Dorian.
“I was shocked that we didn’t get TPS, especially as we have always had such a close relationship with the United States,” said Stanton Forbes, 21, a Bahamian college student who arrived in the United States with his mother on a visitor’s visa right after the storm, but had to go back in November because he couldn’t get a job without TPS. When they returned, they found their house was filled with debris and many of their belongings had been washed away. He said the damages totaled roughly $300,000.
“We had nothing left,” he said.
Forbes recalled fighting to survive the storm when it struck in September, 2019. Besieged by floods, he and his mother scrambled to their small, dark, windowless attic, where they were trapped for 48 hours while 15 feet of water inundated the house, collapsing a wall.
“We were afraid the roof was going to tumble down on our heads,” he said, adding that sleep was impossible. “All we could do was close our eyes for 20 minutes at a time,” he said. “We took turns.”
When the flood began to subside, they made a harrowing escape. They fought fierce currents through more than six feet of water to reach safety. His mother, who can’t swim, struggled to hang on to a backpack holding their passports.
“It was like being in the ocean,” Forbes said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Waterlogged, the backpack began to weigh her down. Her son urged her to let it go, but she refused, a risky decision, but one that ensured they would be able to leave the country. They eventually boarded a Florida-bound cruise ship with other Dorian evacuees. They arrived soon after the disaster, and thus would have qualified for TPS, but President Trump denied the protection to people from the Bahamas.
As such, Forbes could not join the more than 300,000 TPS holders currently in the United States, which include people from the six countries that Trump initially targeted, as well as others from Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan and Syria. The largest share of TPS holders, 190,000, come from El Salvador.
“In many rural areas, people had been growing beans and corn to sustain their families, but they can’t do that anymore. They can no longer feed their families, so they come here,” said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, or Carecen. Years of unregulated urban development and deforestation have contributed to water and air pollution, he said.
“In El Salvador there has been an exponential increase in people driving cars with no regulations on emissions, hurting the air they breathe, and deforestation is taking out the things that could clean the air,” he said. “There is less land for agricultural purposes, and [more] drought. Because clean water is hard to get, people drink sodas, so there is more diabetes and obesity.”
All of this, along with increasing poverty and violence, has spurred migration to the United States, he said. Salvadoran immigrants have established deep roots in America — many of them having lived here for years. They have jobs and families, many with U.S.-born children.
“If they lose TPS, they will be deported back to a country where they haven’t been for 20 years, where there are no jobs and no networks to help integrate them back into life,” Nuñez said.
Karla Alvarado, 32, is one of those migrants. Her mother left El Salvador when Alvarado was 9, managing to get herself, Karla, and a younger son across the border. Alvarado, a college graduate, is now a nursing director for a Philadelphia home health care agency. Two years ago, she married an American. Although eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), she and her brother applied for TPS because it seemed more stable, she said. Her mother also holds TPS.
“It never crossed my mind that this would happen,” she said. “We are established here, and can’t go back to a country we’re not used to. El Salvador is very unstable because of politics, weather and natural disasters. It would be very difficult for us to make our lives there. I love my job. I don’t see my future in El Salvador. It’s scary since we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
She hopes eventually to get her green card through her American husband. But she and Hanzman, the TPS-holder from Honduras, also married to an American, face formidable obstacles. To get a green card, they must prove they entered the country legally, which neither can do. In such cases, the law sends them back to their countries, where they must wait 10 years. Thus, they desperately hope TPS survives, as it would allow them to stay with their families.
“Most of us who are here are working and providing. We are not on welfare. We are contributing,” Alvarado said. “I have worked very hard, and it would not be easy to give up everything I have achieved.”
Trump’s attempt to eliminate these programs has prompted multiple lawsuits. Two of them, which together covered all six countries, resulted in preliminary injunctions that blocked the administration from further action to halt the program. In response, the administration extended the protections pending the outcome of the legal decisions. Thus, TPS has a temporary reprieve until January, 2021, while the legal challenges work their way through the courts.
It’s unclear what would happen to TPS should Trump lose to a Democrat in November, since the reprieve expires January 4, 2021, before a new president is inaugurated, and the courts may — or may not — act before then.
“People displaced by climate change-driven events represent the future of migration challenges,” said Murray, of the American Immigration Council. “They will need to be resettled as their homelands become less habitable, and we — as a country — need to assess how we’re going to respond to them in humane ways.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a nonprofit climate change news service.