Fifty-one-year-old Pemala Sherpa was 16 when she married a man she didn’t know, in a remote region in the mountainous country of Nepal. She gave birth to two children—a boy and a girl. It wasn’t long, she said, before her husband began to beat her.
As the years passed, Sherpa says, she realized that she had a choice: either stay and possibly lose her life, or leave her country. So at 26, in 1994, Sherpa boarded a plane to the U.S. on a tourist visa, leaving her two children behind. To afford the fare, she borrowed money from a friend. “They sold their jewelry and their land to buy me the tickets,” Sherpa said.
Twenty-four years later, Sherpa finally saw her children again—now grown—thanks to a U.S. government program called TPS, or Temporary Protected Status, which allowed her to live in the U.S. legally, as well as return home.
But she is about to lose that protection, because the Trump Administration is curtailing it.
Temporary protected status gives a special designation to foreign nationals living in the U.S. who may face hardship due to conflict or natural disasters in their home countries. After Nepal’s devastating earthquake in April 2015, TPS was granted to 9,000 Nepalese in the United States. The number happens to be the same amount of people who died in the quake.
Before she was able to gain temporary protected status, however, Sherpa went through 21 different lawyers in 24 years in an attempt to gain permanent legal residency in the U.S., living for long periods as an undocumented nanny in New York. Finally, the earthquake prompted her to apply for TPS in 2015, and she was approved.
TPS allowed her to go back to go to Nepal to see her son, who had fallen ill, and then to reenter the U.S. at will.
But she is about to lose that privilege. On April 25th, 2018—three years to the day since Nepal’s earthquake—The Washington Post published leaked Department of Homeland Security memos describing an internal decision to end TPS for the 9,000 U.S.-based Nepalese enrolled in the program. A day later, the Department confirmed in a public statement that the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen M. Nielsen, had indeed taken that decision.
The end of TPS for Nepalese had long been expected, as it is for people from a number of nations. The news came on the heels of a January announcement that has effectively ended TPS for 200,000 enrollees from El Salvador and 50,000 from Haiti.
On Friday, May 4, it was widely reported that the administration would also end TPS for Hondurans, who had been granted the status back in 1999 in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. More than 50,000 people from that country have sunk roots into the U.S. since then.
Nielsen and her Department of Homeland Security have given Nepalese TPS holders a one-year grace period, from June 2018, to leave.
Even though TPS was never intended as a gateway to permanent residency, some advocacy groups had hoped it might offer one.
Pabitra Khati Benjamin, the executive director of Adhikaar, a Queens-based Nepalese advocacy group, said that New York’s Nepalese community has been devastated by the most recent blow—and is scrambling to figure out what the change in status will mean for many who have come to call the United States home.
“People are trying to figure out how they can stay. People are trying to figure out if they’re going to become undocumented again. People with citizen children are wondering what will happen to them,” Benjamin said.
In addition to formal TPS holders, Benjamin said potentially tens of thousands of undocumented Nepalese are living in the U.S. trying to gain residency through other channels; a key reason some didn’t apply for TPS.
She added that though many Americans think most undocumented immigrants are Latino, it’s important to realize that immigration struggles affect Asian communities as well—even if the need for that awareness might mean some undocumented Nepalese may be more willing to become visible as community advocates.
“I think that with the undocumented communities, it’s been really important for us to say, it’s okay to be undocumented, and it’s okay to come out,” Benjamin said. “We don’t necessarily want everyone to put their lives on the line, but we want to share the stories of our community.”
On April 25—the three-year anniversary of the earthquake —Adhikaar hosted a forum for TPS holders in Woodside, Queens, a neighborhood known as a hub for New York’s Nepalese community. An elderly woman addressed the crowd. She was shaking and tears streamed down her cheeks. In Nepali, she berated those Nepalese Americans who she said weren’t doing enough to help the community, despite having gained legal status.
Between 2000 and 2015, the Nepalese community in the U.S. grew from 9,000 to 140,000 people, according to data from Pew and the American Community Survey—an increase of 1,455 percent. But gaining access to a green card – or the right to work in the US legally – can be expensive, particularly due to the high cost of immigration lawyers.
However, those enrolled in the TPS program also have the right to work here legally. According to a survey of Honduran and Salvadoran TPS holders from the National Immigration Forum, 88 percent of them have worked in the U.S.
Though Nepalese TPS holders weren’t included in that survey, many of them work, too. After she was granted TPS status, Sherpa, for example, continued her childcare work, sending money home to her estranged husband to care for their children. “I came here for the tourist visa, but stayed to try and support my family,” Sherpa said.
Sebastian Maguire, an immigration attorney who works for Queens City Councilman Daniel Dromm, also spoke at the Adhikaar forum on April 25. He told the crowd he believes Nepalese people should fight to stay—and that particularly in sanctuary cities like New York, they should give that fight everything they’ve got.
“Unfortunately the federal government doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of folks—so now is the time for the City and the State of New York to step up,” Maguire said. “We obviously do not agree what’s going on in Washington.”