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Omaha group urges action for immigrants about to lose protected status

September 4, 2018

As an Omahan, Ismael Rivera has lived the American dream.

At 44 years old, he’s raised two kids. He’s held the same job for 11 years. He owns a home and pays taxes.

But as an immigrant from El Salvador, his future is uncertain.

Rivera, who is in the U.S. legally through what is known as temporary protected status, will lose that protection next year, absent action by Congress. He is among an estimated 1,500 immigrants in Nebraska and 300,000 nationally due to lose their protected status.

Temporary protective status is a designation that the Department of Homeland Security uses for citizens of nations considered too unstable for a safe return, typically because of extreme violence or natural disasters such as earthquakes. Salvadorans such as Rivera were granted protected status in 2001 because of a massive earthquake that destabilized their country.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen terminated the temporary protected status of Salvadorans, concluding that sufficient reconstruction has occurred over the past 17 years in El Salvador that people can safely return. Nielsen delayed the required return date until September 2019 to give all sides time to act — including allowing immigrants to seek an alternate path to remain in the U.S. and giving Congress time to enact a permanent solution.

This week, Omaha Together One Community is hosting a two-day event on temporary protected status, and the public is invited. The event is tied to a national bus tour of immigrants, and the goal is to encourage support for congressional action that would provide a permanent solution.

Specifically, the group supports a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., that would provide a path to lawful permanent resident status for those from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua. The bill remains in committee.

Some of the other members of the Nebraska and Iowa congressional delegations have said temporary protected status is a humanitarian gesture that shouldn’t be overused.

They argue that temporary protected status should be just that — temporary and not extended for so many years. Immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years have gained skills that will serve their home countries well if they return, advocates of ending the status say.

Kathleen Grant, co-chair of the Omaha Together One Community Immigration and Refugee Action Team, said it makes sense for Congress to act on behalf of these immigrants.

“They are now embedded in our communities,” she said. “They’re virtually all employed, they’ve bought homes, they have cars. They have citizen children and grandchildren.”

And going back home isn’t safe, she said.

That’s a sentiment that Rivera agrees with. El Salvador has routinely been ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous countries because of homicides and gang violence. He said if people like him are sent back to El Salvador, they’ll be targeted for extortion by thugs who think Salvadorans returning from the U.S. have money. Those returnees who don’t pay up “disappear,” he said.

Rivera said that every 18 months, he and the others are fingerprinted and undergo a rigorous vetting to make sure that they are still employed and haven’t gotten in trouble.

Rivera said he sticks to a “straight, straight” road.

“We good persons,” he said. “We are working; we are contributing.”

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