Doris Landaverde unionized to learn how to deal with bullies. As a Muslim Latina woman, she had to fend off her Salvadoran co-workers in the United States —custodians like her— who said she was a terrorist for her faith. She saw women coworkers endure sexual harassment, shocked that something like that would happen at Harvard University. She also saw other types of racial discrimination. The lesson was clear. “As immigrant workers, we always suffer different problems at work, either as bullying or discrimination,” Landaverde said. “So what you do is unionize to defend yourself.”
She became a union organizer with 32BJ SEIU, which represents Harvard’s custodians and security guards. Born in 1978 in Citalá, a rural town in northern El Salvador, Doris has been in the U.S. since 2000. Though she came in without papers, she is a law-abiding worker thanks to a program called Temporary Protected Status (TPS) that allows almost 400,000 people from 15 countries to obtain legal status and work permits. Created in 1990 for places like Lebanon, Rwanda, Kuwait, Haiti, and Sudan, the program opened in 2001 for El Salvador and had been consistently renewed since its creation in 1990 through several Republican and Democrat administrations — until President Donald Trump.
Doris had seen the writing on the wall. The way that Trump talked about immigrants —“using the worst words, always pointing us out as criminals”— made Doris fear the worst. She was right: The Trump administration ended TPS in 2017. So she turned to all of the organizing lessons she learned while working in the Ivy League to face her biggest bully yet.
She enlisted other Salvadoran TPS beneficiaries at Harvard to join the union. She found 200 of them. Approximately 200,000 Salvadorans are the larger group protected under TPS, which amounts to half a million people counting all nationalities. Many people in her situation had started doing the same.
In June 2017, the National TPS Alliance was born. It banded together citizens from Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Nepal. Organizers prompted the formation of local committees, now numbered at 50. Doris joined the Massachusetts committee. The underlying idea was that immigrants didn’t need middlemen, in El Salvador nor in the USA, to talk for them anymore. The emergence of leaders like Doris had been part of the plan all along.
“The movement for immigrant rights has historically been known for its intermediaries, many of them American citizens. How can a citizen be asking for citizenship?” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). Alvarado said his organization and the Central American Resource Center (Carecen), became the anchors of the TPS Alliance.
The TPS Alliance put together an elaborate arsenal of forms of collective action. In 2018, they went on a nationwide road trip, the “Journey for Justice Caravan”, for TPS holders to share their stories. That same year, they sued to block the termination of the program. They have lobbied in Congress to ensure a path to citizenship for beneficiaries. They’ve launched demonstrations, marches, and rallies. And they sat down for negotiations with the Biden administration to bring a political solution to the court case.
Alvarado said they had three things in mind: that affected people told their stories, that lasting change be built from the bottom up, and that they would have to run every play in the book to be successful. This they had learned over the years. Alvarado has been working on immigrant advocacy since 1991 and started NDLON in 2001. Carecen has been around even longer, since 1983. Alvarado said they started to go to Washington D.C. to fight bills like Arizona’s SB1070, the “show me your papers” provision that allowed police officers to ask for proof of citizenship. “We were the first to take on Sheriff (Joe) Arpaio on the streets,” Alvarado said of the notoriously anti-immigrant former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
Facing Trump seemed like the natural progression. “We used the [TPS] lawsuit to give us some time to breathe, to survive the four years of what I think has been the most anti-immigrant administration in U.S. history,” Alvarado said.
For local members of TPS Alliance, a more primal feeling of survival lies before all their actions. “When you fear losing your documents, being deported and separated from your children, there’s an inner force that allows you to keep putting in this hard work”, Doris said.
“I know there are several organizations that represent us but here in the Alliance, I can do it for myself. We’re sharing a story that no one can tell for us,” she said.
Political representation can make or break policy for immigrant communities, but they are often stranded in no man’s land. TPS holders, for instance, have been residing in America for decades but don’t have full citizenship rights that allow them to vote where they live. With limited traveling permits, they don’t vote in El Salvador either, even though the country is just now starting the process to largely allow its citizens abroad to vote in national elections. Frequently, the priorities of Salvadorans abroad don’t match with the ones of American nor Salvadoran politicians.
Bukele crashes the party
On October 23, there was a big party planned in Houston’s Bayland Park. The musical lineup included two DJs, two orchestras, and a singer, complete with food stands and beer for the celebration of the Day of the Salvadoran Abroad. There, Iris Canizales, a 39-year-old organizer for TPS Alliance, saw what she calls a misleading political maneuver.
“The festival was never promoted as a political rally for President Nayib Bukele or his party. It was always about dancing and eating,” Iris said. “But in a moment, some Salvadoran congressmen and women went on stage and started saying, ‘let’s chant for reelection.’ Few people joined in but in the videos, they show the whole crowd and make it seem like they were there for them.”
Reelection is the agenda of President Bukele, not the diaspora. Though the Salvadoran Constitution bans presidential reelection, a controversial 2021 Constitutional Court decision will allow him to run again in 2024. Bukele is counting on Salvadorans abroad to provide the maneuver both votes and legitimacy.
Bukele’s popularity in the diaspora is perceived as in line with his overall numbers: a Dec. 2022 survey gave him 88 % approval, according to LPG Datos, the in-house researcher for one of the country’s biggest newspapers: La Prensa Gráfica. But it remains to be seen if that will translate into the polls or if the rest of Bukele’s foreign policy, one that has isolated activists’ efforts in Capitol Hill, will have any effect.
Salvadorans are the third-largest minority group among Hispanics in the U.S., at approximately 2.3 million people according to the 2020 Census, just below Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and tied with Cubans. Despite that number, and the fact they send back in remittances almost one out of every four dollars in the country, the interests of the U.S. diaspora population have not been factored into Bukele’s relationship with Washington.
Though in the face of Joe Biden’s White House Bukele wields the sovereignty argument like many nationalist leaders around the world, his posture toward the Donald Trump administration was much softer and more compliant. He made an alliance with Trump, who he called a “very nice and cool” man in their only public meeting, established a Salvadoran Border Patrol that has detained Salvadoran citizens attempting to flee the country, and signed a treaty to receive asylum-seekers that the U.S. didn’t want, although it was never fully implemented. That’s the 2019 Bukele, who promised to completely stop forced migration by 2024 and showed skepticism about El Salvador’s newly thawed relations with China.
In exchange, he got lukewarm reactions from Washington when he invaded the Legislative Assembly with the Army in February 2020 and received continued assistance during the pandemic.
It all changed after Biden’s inauguration, when U.S. tolerance to antidemocratic actions and corruption ran in shorter supply. Under allegations of corruption or threatening democratic processes or institutions, the Biden administration has sanctioned 24 Salvadorans, including Bukele’s chief of staff, head of prisons, party leader, press secretary, and other officials.
The face-off with Biden has taken the driver’s seat in Bukele’s diplomatic efforts. He has made a multimillion-dollar campaign to hire lobbyists to help ease the sanctions. But the main objective is to strengthen his grip with the Trump wing of the Republican party, betting on a 2024 comeback allowing him to return to an easier stance without really changing his ways in San Salvador.
The lobbyists even step into what would naturally be areas of influence of the Salvadoran Ambassador in Washington, Milena Mayorga. But Mayorga, a former TV presenter and one-term congresswoman for right-wing Arena, hasn’t found an easy foothold in the delicate webs of diplomacy. In September 2020, she said that “the heart of the new policy with Washington is to explain to our countrymen that President Bukele is creating the conditions for them to go back.”
Iris Canizales said those words were like a slap in the face for immigrants and activists. “They don’t understand the reality of the community. They have their whole lives here, their families. They feel offended by those comments,” she said. Iris said they are surveying some of the TPS recipients in their community —some 45,000 in Texas— on how they feel about the protection ending, whether they have considered alternatives, and, importantly, if they would go back home. “Out of ten, eleven said they wouldn’t go back,” she quipped.
Bukele’s rhetoric is also a challenge. The current TPS for Salvadorans was granted in 2001, on the heels of two earthquakes that largely disrupted life and the economy in El Salvador. The U.S. then adjusted the criteria to maintain the protections on the basis of insecurity and rampant crime in the country. But Bukele’s grandiloquent style —he said El Salvador would have the largest Covid hospital in Latin America, that the country is now the safest in the continent and that its economic plan would “shock the world”— begs the question: why, then, do the citizens of such an improved country need protection?
In November 2022, the last TPS extension, Bukele didn’t say a word, leaving it to Ambassador Mayorga to celebrate. This extension, like the previous ones, has been much more linked to U.S. internal policy than the result of diplomatic success, although Bukele’s position hasn’t placed him in a good seat for any negotiations. It’s unclear how he plans to protect the Salvadoran immigrant population, but he has made some concessions. Salvadorans abroad can now sign up and add their families for the national healthcare plan, a decades-long petition from the organizations.
Now again on the verge of elections next year, Bukele and his party are looking to the diaspora. Some make optimistic calculations reaching hundreds of thousands of votes, dismissing the historical participation figures: the number of ballots cast from Salvadorans abroad has never been over 4,000. Moreover, the president’s Nuevas Ideas party had diaspora Salvadorans as founding members, but they were ultimately excluded from the power positions.
Doris Landaverde, the Harvard custodian, said she registered in 2019 but decided not to vote. “It’s my family who lives there and they have to decide who they want in power. I can’t make that decision for them,” she said.
She feels like she doesn’t belong but she also doesn’t want to fit in there. “I don’t understand much about politics, but when I hear El Salvador is doing good and that we can come back, I know it’s not the reality. We all have families there. We all send money for them to pay the bills. That’s how I know things are not okay, and that the country is not ready to welcome us back.”
Does Biden really care?
Talks between TPS Alliance members and the Biden administration collapsed in late October, so the Alliance was getting ready to bring the fight back to the streets. On November 9, they called for a hunger strike in Lafayette Square, a park in front of the White House that has seen protesters gather for a century since the suffragists began the tradition in 1917.
On November 10, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would unilaterally extend TPS until June 2024. People already in Washington, D.C., for the hunger strike quickly convened to celebrate. The outcome, however, is very far from Biden’s campaign promises.
In June 2020, then-candidate Biden said he would send a bill to Congress that laid out a “clear roadmap to citizenship” for 11 million people. Vice President Kamala Harris followed that up by saying in January 2021 that the promise included TPS recipients as well as the beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), another emblematic program whose members are known as Dreamers.
On his first day in the Oval Office, Biden signed three executive orders related to those promises. But instead of any concrete results, immigration activists have gotten a government that, while publicly decrying Trump’s policies, has kept on using them. For instance, the pandemic-era Title 42 provision forces asylum seekers to wait outside the U.S. while their cases run their course. While Biden has drifted away from the extreme discourse Trump preferred and some actions like the Muslim ban, he has kept in place most of his policies which still include 327 cases of family separation (the number during Trump was above 5,000) and the construction of the border wall, with less hype. Biden has also continued to fight in court with organizations.
Now, Biden is again talking about that unfulfilled promise. He has had little choice after a 2022 in which the increase of refugee applications, especially from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti and an increasing influx of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border made their way back into the headlines. Biden visited El Paso on January 8, and faced criticism from his party and Republicans. He’s landed in a position where he’s criticized from both camps for not doing enough in either direction: achieving a deal for broad immigration reform on one side and, on the other, absolutely curbing the amount of undocumented people who cross the border.
The way TPS Alliance framed the announcement of the extension of the program said something about where their allegiances lie.
They released a press statement with the title: “Victory: Auto-extension of TPS for 18 months”. If it wasn’t clear enough, they followed up with another thank-you list that included the plaintiff in the court case, their lawyers, the ACLU, the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA, and the TPS families. Not happy with the subtle omissions, they underscored: “This victory is not thanks to the intervention of any government of the beneficiary countries, but to the courage, commitment, and fighting spirit of the TPS families who got rid of fear and spoke up.”
In an op-ed, Oscar Chacón (executive director of Alianza Americas, one of the organizations behind Alianza TPS), wrote that the TPS battle “continues to be one that is fought from a place of abandonment. Diplomatic support of every involved country has been, without exception, minimal, though this didn’t prevent them from promoting the triumph as their own, no matter if they had little or nothing to do with it.”
In the end, this is also a fight for who represents the interests of the diaspora. “People are not attached to their countries' governments anymore,” said Iris Canizales, the Houston organizer. “They feel (the Alliance) is the space and the tool that gives them strength and unity to face adverse situations in migration policy.”
Moreover, she said that more effective work of the foreign affairs departments of the countries of origin couldn’t replace what the Alliance does. “Politicians will come to talk with other politicians,” she explained. “They won’t get close to a grassroots movement, they won’t participate in our community radio where several people share their stories. That kind of work, to really understand the population's plight, makes the Alliance strong. Governments lack the empathy to understand that uprooting your life is not simply getting on a plane.”