Immigrants Work Essential Jobs on Front Lines of Coronavirus Crisis

Of the estimated 411,000 immigrants in the U.S. with temporary protected status, more than 130,000 are essential workers of businesses that have stayed open during the pandemic.

A shopper wears a mask as she walks a grocery store in Dallas, Texas, on April 29, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

HOUSTON (CN) — Prem Limbu’s gas station co-workers did not want to risk their health. Rather than deal with a steady stream of customers, some likely infected with Covid-19, many of them quit last month, leaving Limbu working 12-hour days, seven days a week.

“Working at a gas station can be dangerous. I come across a number of people every day,” Limbu said.

He said he’s been working at the station in Dallas for 21 years. He started his own gas station a few years ago, but he had to close it due to uncertainty about his immigration status.

The uncertainty grew exponentially when Donald Trump took office in 2017 and put his anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric into action, refusing to extend the temporary protected status, or TPS, of people from Nepal, like Limbu, and immigrants from nine other countries who can qualify for the status.

The government grants this protection from deportation to some foreigners who were in the United States when natural disasters or wars prevented them from going home.

TPS beneficiaries pay the government $495 every 18 months to renew their status, a process in which the FBI checks their backgrounds and takes their fingerprints and they get work permits.

Limbu has lived in the U.S. since 1999.

He obtained his protected status after June 24, 2015, when the government added Nepal to the program, two months after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country, killing 9,000 people and injuring 22,000.

Of the estimated 411,000 TPS holders in the U.S., more than 130,000 are essential workers of businesses that have stayed open during the coronavirus pandemic, according to an April 15 letter to Trump from 38 Democratic and Independent U.S. senators urging him to automatically extend TPS holders’ work permits.

Despite the risks, Limbu sees his gas station job as a crucial cog in the nation’s response to the virus.

“I do worry that I might contract the virus. But I know that continuing to work means other essential workers are able to go to work. Like health care workers rely on me to fill up their cars and get to the hospitals,” he said through an interpreter on a press call Wednesday sponsored by America’s Voice. The Washington, D.C., nonprofit advocates for reforms to give the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

If Trump had his way, Limbu, 52, would be living back in Nepal with his wife and two children, or looking over his shoulder wondering when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would come arrest him.

TPS was set to end for Nepalese immigrants on March 24, but the government extended it to Jan. 4, 2021, after a federal judge blocked the termination while appeals work their way through the courts.

With a civil war raging in El Salvador in the 1980s and young people being forced to fight, Gerson Bonilla’s parents decided to send him away.

“I was 15 years old and I was forced to leave my family, my parents, my friends, my school. Then I came to Houston,” Bonilla said on the conference call.

Bonilla, 49, owns an HVAC repair company in Houston that employs 10 people, some of whom are U.S. citizens.

A TPS recipient, he too is essential because his company maintains air-conditioning for retirement homes and nursing homes, whose elderly residents and staff have been devastated by the pandemic, accounting for around one-third of the country’s more than 92,000 Covid-19 deaths.

Bonilla is married and has four children, one of whom has Down syndrome.

He worries about the kind of medical care his son would receive if they were forced to move to El Salvador, where Salvadoran immigrants say people who go to the hospital for emergencies sometimes have to wait two or three days before doctors can see them.

The TPS protections for Salvadorans were also extended under a court order and are set to expire Jan. 4, 2021.

The majority of TPS holders are from El Salvador (195,000), Honduras (57,000) and Haiti (46,000), according to the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group.

Other countries in the program are Nepal, Nicaragua, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Somalia.

Experts say the average TPS recipient has lived in the U.S. for 20 years.

Should they lose their status, they will be easy targets for deportation given that the government has their information on file in their renewal applications. They will be returned to countries no longer familiar to them.

“What the courts will decide we don’t know,” said Limbu, the Nepalese gas station clerk. “After a few months, we may have to pack up and leave this country that I call home. So I urge Congress to extend our TPS status and work permits and support us in the fight to become permanent residents of this nation.”

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