Thousands of Nepali immigrants lose special residency protections, must leave US

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The Trump administration is ramping up efforts to get rid of programs that provide temporary residency permits for immigrants from countries ravaged by natural and human catastrophes.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced its decision to terminate protections granted to Nepali immigrants after a massive earthquake devastated their country in 2015.

The move follows similar cancellations of temporary protections for immigrants from other countries hit by natural disasters or violent conflicts, including El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan.

The Temporary Protected Status program was created by Congress in 1990 to avoid sending foreigners back to nations destabilized by natural disasters, armed conflict and other calamities. Admission into the TPS program shields immigrants from deportation, grants them a work permit and allows them to travel outside the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security terminated the TPS designation for Nepal following a review, required by law, that concluded the South Asian country has recovered sufficiently to accommodate the return of its citizens living in the United States. The protections for Nepali immigrants ends June 24, 2019, a grace period designed to allow an orderly transition.

“Since the 2015 earthquake, conditions in Nepal have notably improved. Additionally, since the last review of the country’s conditions in October 2016, Nepal has made substantial progress in post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction,” the department said in a statement.

Pemba Sherpa, co-owner of La Casa restaurant in Sonoma with strong ties to the Nepali community in Sonoma, said there are many regions in Nepal that have not recovered from the 2015 earthquake.

“There are still a lot of people that are impacted, their houses haven’t been rebuilt,” he said. “Many people still do not have houses, they’re living in shelters and when monsoons and rainy season comes, it’s a very tough life for them.”

Sherpa, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, said most people who lost everything during the earthquake had no homeowners insurance to replace their properties. What little money and help they’ve received from nongovernmental organizations is not nearly enough to replace their homes and everything they lost, he said.

Sherpa lamented the cancellation of TPS for Nepali immigrants, saying recovering from the impact of the earthquake “will take time.” The decision to terminate the TPS designation for Nepal will affect 9,000 people across the United States. It is unclear how many of Sonoma County’s 400 foreign-born Nepali are TPS holders.

Immigration hard-liners in the Trump administration have pushed to eliminate TPS protections whenever possible. In recent months the Department of Homeland Security has canceled the residency permits of 200,000 Salvadorans, 50,000 Haitians and a smaller number of Nicaraguans and Sudanese.

Nielsen has until May 6 to announce a decision for some 57,000 TPS recipients from Honduras who have been living in the United States for two decades. The Trump administration has signaled it plans to end their protections.

Local immigration experts point to recent U.S. Court of Appeals decisions that could help some TPS holders gain permanent residency. A 2013 decision in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court and a 2017 decision in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court essentially satisfies lawful entry or admission requirements, even if TPS holders entered the country illegally, said Santa Rosa immigration attorney Lamar Peckham.

“That was like a gift from heaven when the courts came down with those decisions,” Peckham said.

For instance, a TPS holder who is married to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident could be eligible to apply for a Green Card without leaving the country, Peckham said.

Liliana Gallelli, an attorney with Kerosky Purves & Brogue, said the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to end TPS programs has made it imperative that TPS holders find another form of immigration relief. Applying for a Green Card through a family member is one of those options “but there are others,” she said.

“All these people that are going to have their status taken away, it’s really urgent that they find an alternate form of relief, and before their current status expires so they have a seamless transition,” she said.

Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney who heads Vital Immigrant Defense Advocacy and Services, or VIDAS, said immigrants from El Salvador comprise most of the people his organization has helped with TPS-related issues.

TPS was granted to Salvadorans in 2001 after the small Central American country was struck by earthquakes. VIDAS has been contracted by the Salvadoran Consulate in San Francisco to provide free consultations to TPS holders three times a week since the announcement of its cancellation was made earlier this year, he said.

Using TPS designation as “lawful admission” is “a big advantage and a number of Salvadorans and others with TPS have been taking advantage of that,” Coshnear said.

The Washington Post contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213.

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