In 1997, the Iraheta family fled their native El Salvador, a country racked by political unrest following a 12-year civil war, for safety and opportunity in the United States. Claudia Iraheta was 2 years old. Her family settled in Farmers Branch, Texas, and has been able to stay and work in the United States on Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a renewable immigration status for people from countries designated too dangerous to return to. Since 2001, El Salvador has been beset by earthquakes, landslides, housing and food shortages, and widespread gang violence.
In Farmers Branch, Iraheta’s father, who years earlier had been an accountant in his home country, found work managing deliveries for local car dealerships. Her mother, once a media manager, now works as custodian at a high school. They bought a home, raised a family, and Iraheta and her U.S.-born sister excelled in school and went on to college.
The only thing that makes me un-American is paperwork and about 24 months of my life.
Then, in January 2018, the Trump administration announced it was terminating TPS for El Salvador, leaving Irahet’s family and some 200,000 other Salvadorans 18 months to leave the country. Iraheta says it is too daunting to imagine what her life will look like. “I know nothing except for being a Texan. I know nothing besides American history,” she says. “The only thing that makes me un-American is paperwork and about 24 months of my life.”
A court injunction has since extended TPS until January 2020 for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Sudan, giving people like Iraheta one more year to remain but still no long-term security. Still, Iraheta remains committed to the life she’s built in America. Since graduating in 2017 from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in advertising, she has worked as a media planner for a Dallas advertising firm that employs 750 people and produces campaigns for clients including Chick-fil-A, Ram Trucks, Jeep, and GameStop. “I’ve always wanted to work here since I was little,” she says proudly.
TPS holders can stay if they can secure permanent residency by other means, but few options exist. For Irahet’s family, the only path is through her sister, who was born in the United States. But she is not eligible to sponsor them until she turns 21 — in 2021, after the deadline—and even then applications take years to be approved. “I can’t help but worry about what happens after that, when we can’t work,” says Iraheta. “The bills come regardless of your immigration status. How do you pay your mortgage? How do you pay your car? Your student loans? How do we finance my sister’s education? So not only does that hinder us, but it hinders my sister who is a U.S. citizen.”
Terminating TPS would also hurt the U.S. economy. New American Economy estimates that the nation’s TPS holders—there are currently more than 300,000 from 10 countries—earn nearly $7 billion in total household income and pay more than $1.3 billion in annual federal, state, and local taxes across the country. An analysis by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that terminating TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti alone would lead to a $45.2 billion reduction in U.S. gross domestic product and reduce Social Security and Medicare contributions by $6.9 billion over a decade.
Iraheta is trying to remain hopeful, but it is difficult. “I am a planner, and with my life being in limbo for the next two years it’s hard for me to figure out where I can go professionally,” she says. “I’m not in a bad place now, but I’m stuck.”
Iraheta would like to see the immigration process reformed. She and her parents have contributed to the economy and their community for more than 20 years. They are among the more than 173,000 foreign-born residents of Texas’ 24th Congressional District, who combined pay $1.6 billion in annual taxes and hold $5.2 billion in spending power. “My parents have always said, ‘If [the United States government] told us it would take $20,000 or $30,000 and 40 hours a week of schooling to become citizens for some reason, we would do it,’” says Iraheta. “Whatever it would take. But there’s just no opportunity. And that’s what’s frustrating to me when people tell me, ‘Claudia, just go wait in line.’ Tell me where the line is, and I’ll go wait happily.”
Iraheta’s biggest fear now is that the government will restrict the number of visas it issues for family reunification, a longstanding system that allows citizens to sponsor certain immediate family members but that President Donald Trump has derided as “chain migration.” “The thing I’m scared of is that if that gets taken away and there’s no solution to DACA, no solution for TPS, then my parents can’t even petition through my sister,” Iraheta says. “We would be extra stuck because even that hope would be gone. What I want to see is an opportunity for people who have an established life here in the U.S. to have that potential of getting their residency or citizenship.”
But until Congress acts, Iraheta is left feeling defeated. “To follow the rules and be these ideal immigrants who don’t get in trouble, who pay all their taxes, who do all the things you’re supposed to do in order to be able to live your American Dream, and there’s no path to citizenship?” she says. “It’s just so frustrating.”