Living in Legal Limbo


All of them live in legal limbo. And all of them live under the same roof.

The matriarch, Mirna Portillo, 49, a Salvadoran who entered the country illegally 19 years ago, is losing her hair because of stress. After an earthquake hit El Salvador in 2001, the United States granted temporary protected status, known as TPS, to immigrants from the country already living here. Portillo was safe, for a while. But now TPS for El Salvadorans is going to expire in nine months.

Hernán, her husband, who crossed in 1994, isn’t losing his hair from stress, but he is afraid of becoming undocumented again and losing his job and the house he bought for his family in Long Island. Their children worry too.

Johnathan, 27, their son, has been allowed to work and live in the country thanks to what is commonly referred to as DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that was put into effect by Obama in 2012 and extended protection to immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. But Johnathan has decided to put his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold because in 2017 President Trump announced the end of DACA.

Jeanethe, 28, their daughter, doesn´t want to leave her three children who were born in the U.S. and are American citizens, alone, a possibility if she loses her DACA permit and gets deported. She is particularly worried that her eight-year-old autistic son won´t be able to make it on his own or adapt to another country if she takes him with her.

Mirna and Hernán are part of the group of around 300,000 TPS holders with their future on hold, waiting for a court to resolve their immigration status. Their children, Jeanethe and Johnathan, along with 700,000 others, are DACA recipients who are also waiting for a court to decide their future in the United States. Jeanethe´s three sons were born here, but they are among the millions of children who live in a family with mixed immigration status—and whose future depends on how the courts rule on these laws. Meanwhile, they try to treasure what they can as a family.

“Jeanethe! Can you come please! Johnathan, you too! The journalist wants to take a picture of us,” says Mirna Portillo to her daughter and son before smiling for the camera. Jeanethe and Johnathan join their parents reluctantly. Family portraits are rare.

The only thing the Portillos can do, for now, is to wait for the courts to decide on both DACA and TPS. In 2017, President Trump announced the end of DACA, but several federal courts have blocked the order. The Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to intervene, but it has not taken action in the case yet.

The future of TPS is in the air too. In 2018, President Trump’s administration announced the end of the program but, after a lawsuit, U.S District Judge Edward Chen from California froze the termination of the protection.

Meanwhile, the Portillo family is struggling to bear the never-ending months of suspense.

Mirna Portillo left her children in El Salvador to cross the border from Mexico into the United States illegally in 2000. At the time, her husband, Hernán, who crossed in 1994, was working in New York with a fake social security number. “It was very hard to leave my kids because I was coming to a country without knowing if I was going to return home,” says Mirna, sitting in her living room in Hempstead, Long Island.

In 2001, however, life changed for Mirna and Hernán after they were able to get protection from deportation and a work permit because of their Temporary Protected Status as immigrants from El Salvador. As a result, Hernán was able to open a bank account, get a driver’s license, and buy a house. “We could breathe better,” says Mirna.

Then it was time for the kids to come.

In 2003 and 2004, Jeanethe and Johnathan crossed the border with the aid of a smuggler, known as a coyote. But unlike their parents, Jeanethe and Johnathan did not have the authorization to live in the country as TPS only applied to those already living here. Their parents were convinced that they would get the best education possible in the United States, nevertheless, but they worried that things could change for the whole family in an instant if their status was discovered. “I dropped and picked them up from school every single day, I was panicked ICE would catch them,” says Mirna, who now works at a golf course in Long Island and makes around $20,000 every 10 months.

In 2012, when DACA was announced, the family was relieved. Maybe the children would be ok after all.

The hope fizzled again in 2017, when President Trump announced the end of the protection granted under DACA. Jeanethe, who is also the mother of 12, 9 and 8-year-old boys, born in the United States, panicked with the news.

“One of my sons has advanced autism, leaving this country for him would be a trauma, a shock. He doesn´t say a word in Spanish. I would never leave the kids here. I can’t,” says Jeanethe in Spanish. She is a single mother now and works in a deli gourmet restaurant.

For the Portillo family, it is hard to plan, so they live day by day. “If I don’t secure legal papers, I can’t obtain a medical license,” says Johnathan in Spanish, who now makes between $500-700 weekly working for a telephone company. His dream is to become a doctor.

The disappearance of DACA, say many experts, may hurt more than just the families involved, however.

If DACA workers lose their work authorization, the cumulative U.S gross domestic product would be reduced by $433.4 billion over the next decade, according to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

“This is like a roller-coaster for all the people that have DACA. The fact is that this is a limbo and it’s very frustrating for them,” says lawyer Elizabeta Markuci, director of the organization Volunteers of Legal Service. Since President Trump announced the end of the program, according to Markuci, many DACA recipients are filing their renewals applications earlier, in case the program ends in the short term.

The status of TPS that protects Mirna and her husband is in limbo too. TPS was supposed to end in September 2019, but, after a lawsuit was filed last year against the termination of TPS, the expiration of the protection was postponed for El Salvador and other countries like Haiti, and Nicaragua.

The U.S economy could also be negatively impacted by the end of TPS and the resulting departure of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, says the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies public policies. New York is home to more than 16,200 TPS holders from El Salvador. They contribute an annual Gross Domestic Product of $958,3 million, according to a report from the same source.

TPS was supposed to end in September 2019, but since the future of TPS is still on hold in the courts, the Department of Homeland Security announced an extension of the program until January 2nd, 2020.

“The government can’t end the TPS while the lawsuit is pending. If around December there is no answer from the court, the Department of Homeland Security might have to announce a new extension,” says immigration lawyer Eduardo Rivera. “Definitely TPS holders are very worried and in a limbo, most of them don’t have any other option for staying.”

For now, the Portillos have a bit of a respite, if only for a little while. But Mirna is feeling the stress over the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

“Look at my hair, it is falling because of my nerves. I have alopecia caused by stress. This is what I have to live [through],” says Mirna.

To distract herself from the problems, Mirna takes English lessons twice a week in a school close to her house in Long Island. “I have only learned like three words in three months though,” she jokes. Despite her worries, Mirna hasn’t lost her sense of humor.

“I ask my grandchildren to help me do my homework, but they say I am too old for that,” she adds, bursting into laughter.

If TPS and DACA end, it will upend Mirna and her family, and many other immigrant families that live here. They might be separated or face having to start their lives all over again in their homelands, or somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Mirna isn’t sitting quietly. On March 12, Mirna went to Washington D.C. to support the introduction of the Dream and Promise Act, a bill proposed by Democrats in the House of Representatives. The act allows TPS holders to apply for a permanent status in the United States. The bill also aims to protect “dreamers,” like Jeanethe and Johnathan, immigrants who entered the country illegally when they were children. This bill is the Portillo family’s last hope.

In the meantime, Mirna, a religious person, says she will leave her future in God’s hands. “I know that if he wants, everything will turn fine. If not, sadly, I would have to return,” she says.

But just in case things don’t work out, she has decided to start preparing herself for the worse. “I think I will stop decorating the house,” she says, just after posing for the family photo she helped to arrange.

Paintings and several portraits of her children and grandchildren hang from the living room’s green walls, a room that she has been meticulously decorating for years.

For now, however, it seems that any new family picture will have to wait to join the collection.