A month after Typhoon Haiyan, a push for immigration reform

Activists want the US to grant Filipino immigrants temporary protected status so they can better assist in the recovery

One month after Typhoon Haiyan, much of the Philippines, like this coastal town of Marabut, remains severely damaged.
Rolex Dela Pena/EPA

The estimated number of people killed by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines keeps rising, now surpassing 5,700.

That’s led to a massive recovery effort both within the Philippines and among the million-and-a-half Filipino immigrants living in the United States

But for most of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Filipinos in the U.S., securing a job that affords enough disposable income to send back home is difficult, and traveling back to the Philippines to help is nearly impossible.

Now, immigrant groups across the country are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to grant Filipinos who were already in the U.S. when Haiyan hit Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This would allow many to work legally in the U.S., send money back home and fly back to the Philippines without fear of being denied re-entry into the U.S.

While granting TPS would only provide temporary help for those looking to assist loved ones back home, immigrant rights activists say it would be an important step in alleviating the massive strain Typhoon Haiyan put on Filipino communities. 

But, unlike after previous disasters such as the 2010 Haitian earthquake, it’s unclear if there’s political will in either country’s government to usher through TPS. And critics of TPS point out that the measure has had mixed success in the past and might distract from the longer-term need for immigration solutions.

Filipino immigrants, legal assistance groups and 20 U.S. Senators have joined forces to push for Temporary Protected Status. They sent letters to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and urged the government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino to work out a TPS agreement. 

“It’s not a silver bullet,” said Leah Obias, the campaigns coordinator for Damayan Migrant Workers Association, which assists Filipinos in the New York area. “But things like protected immigration status, work authorization and being able to travel — these are major things.”

Because, unlike comprehensive immigration reform, TPS can be granted without Congressional approval, Obias and her colleagues think TPS for the Philippines is well within reach. They point to past examples, like the protected status granted to Haitians after the 2010 Haitian earthquake that killed 100,000 people or the TPS granted to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. There are currently eight countries with Temporary Protected Status.

But TPS for other countries has usually been granted in the days immediately after a disaster. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines a month ago, and there’s still no sign that Philippine President Benigno Aquino will request the status for his country, a necessary step before the U.S. considers the measure.

If Aquino eventually does send a formal request, granting TPS could still be a controversial decision for U.S. officials.

TPS, which is usually granted in 18-month blocks, is often renewed by the Department of Homeland Security. Honduras, for example, has continually received renewal of its TPS status since 1998, meaning many Hondurans guaranteed a reprieve from deportation in 15 years ago are still in the U.S. today.

That’s led some to call TPS a backdoor to permanent residency.

“TPS, in theory, is a reasonable program, but it’s a misnomer,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director of the conservative immigration think-tank Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “It’s never temporary. Once you grant quasi-legal status to people, it’s very hard to revoke it.”

Even those pushing for TPS seem to agree that it’s not an ideal solution.

Damayan’s Obias says she has mixed feelings about TPS. She said it can be a distraction from the need for permanent immigration reform in the U.S. And she’s worried that TPS could increase the Philippines’ dependence on remittances — money sent back to the Philippines by Filipinos living abroad — which currently make up about 10 percent of the country’s economy.

She’s not alone in her concern. Over the last three years, the Haitian community has seen the mixed effects of TPS on a community.

Ninaj Raoul, the executive director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, said many Haitians didn’t even apply for protection after the 2010 earthquake because of the complexity and cost. If an immigrant finds a job while under TPS, and TPS isn’t renewed, they’re likely to lose the job, and permits for traveling abroad while under TPS can cost hundreds of dollars.

“TPS is an ongoing band-aid,” she said. “It doesn’t fix the underlying problems.”

Still, she said, she understands why Filipinos are seeking TPS. In the midst of a crisis, the program, no matter how flawed, can seem like a saving grace.

At a press conference this week, Filipino immigrants made emotional pleas for action.

Juana Dwyer, a housekeeper who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years and also works at Damayan, said she wanted to get a better job and travel back to the Philippines to help her family, but can’t because she’s undocumented.

“They don’t have electricity. The price of rice almost doubled,” she said. “My nephew almost died. I need money to send to them.”

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