Seventy-year-old Juan Yanez takes the bus to and from his job as a dishwasher every day at the International Monetary Fund’s headquarters in Washington D.C., his first indoor job.
He’s worked in construction, but walked away from the industry at 65 because it was taking too great a physical toll. This is only Yanez’s third year while living in the United States that he hasn’t simultaneously worked more than one job, and he’s called the United States home for nearly 20 years.
Yanez is a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipient from El Salvador. He fled the country after the U.S.-backed civil war in which he lost his wife. His time in the United States has been “all about work,” Yanez said, and he is one of thousands of immigrants who serve as the backbone of Unite Here, a labor union spanning the United States and Canada.
As a Unite Here member, Yanez has learned to advocate for himself. Given the signs the Trump administration is moving to end TPS entirely, no matter how ill-equipped countries like Haiti are to reabsorb thousands of people—or how deeply rooted TPS recipients are in their communities—Yanez was not surprised by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s announcement today that she would not be extending TPS for El Salvador.
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When Yanez spoke to Rewire, he expressed that the end of TPS for El Salvador seemed inevitable, never mind that El Salvador remains one of the deadliest countries in the world. Yanez also had questions for Rewire.
“Trump [is ending TPS because he] is a very bad man. Many people I know say he is evil incarnate and I believe he is ending TPS just because he can. Because he doesn’t like us immigrants, even though we are honest people. We are hard workers. We don’t hurt anyone, we just work every day to survive,” Yanez said. “I have worked every day in this country for 18 years, paying my taxes, paying into Social Security. Trump is taking away all we have, but this is what I want to know—this is what I want you to find out: What will happen to the benefits owed to us, the benefits we have been paying for? What happens to our money?”
Little is known about the specific demographic makeup of the nearly 200,000 TPS recipients from El Salvador, but Yanez said many of his friends are like him: elderly TPS recipients who are still working and have been paying taxes in the United States for decades. As they gear up for the possibility of mass deportations of TPS recipients, Yanez said he and his friends are having lots of conversations about being forced to return to their countries of origin, and whether or not they will be able to access the benefits owed to them.
An estimated 88 percent of TPS recipients from El Salvador are employed, according to the Journal on Migration and Human Security. In a study conducted by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) about the economic contributions of TPS recipients from Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras, whose status will be re-evaluated in July, the organization found that targeting these populations with deportation—or forcing them to leave by ending their ability to legally work in the United States—would cost the United States greatly.
Not only would deporting all Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian TPS recipients cost taxpayers $3.1 billion dollars, but their absence would leave a gigantic hole in the U.S. economy. ILRC reported that ending TPS for these three countries would result in a $6.9 billion reduction to Social Security and Medicare contributions over a decade, as well as a $45.2 billion reduction in GDP over a decade. The lay-offs of the entire employed TPS population from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras would cost employers $967 million in turnover costs. Despite popular narratives that immigrants don’t pay taxes, but rather “drain the system,” TPS recipients and undocumented immigrants are actually keeping benefits for Americans afloat.
“My friends and I have been talking about this a lot, and we want answers. We have been paying into Social Security, paying taxes, thousands of us have been doing this. We thought this money was being stored for our future,” Yanez said. “If the president wants to send us back to El Salvador, there is nothing we can do. We have to go back, but at least they can do is give us the money back they owe us; the money we paid. These are our benefits that we worked very hard for. If they force us to leave without giving us our benefits, that’s stealing. How can they send me back to El Salvador, at this age, with nothing? How can I build another life in El Salvador with nothing, not even with what is owed to me? We will die of hunger.”
David Kallick, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative, told Rewire that the tax contributions of TPS recipients have been “the tip of the iceberg.” They have made their biggest contribution to the economy as workers, and in many instances, job creators. The Journal on Migration and Human Security reported that 11 percent of TPS recipients from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras are self-employed, having created jobs for themselves and others.
“As TPS ends and people are forced to leave or they are deported, accessing their benefits isn’t really straightforward. They have paid into Medicare, that they presumably will not get. When it comes to Social Security, I think it’s a very complicated question that requires individuals to consult with tax advisers and immigration attorneys,” Kallick.
Part of the problem is that figuring out if accessing benefits is feasible is complicated, even for U.S. citizens. When you add a language barrier and an increasingly complicated immigration status, it’s an overwhelming process, one that requires time and money to consult with experts. That’s time and money TPS recipients may not have, as they are forced to consider uprooting and returning to their countries of origin.
Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, told Rewire there are a number of tools online for people like Yanez—senior citizen TPS recipients who want to know if they can access their benefits from abroad.
A good place to start is the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) guide, Your Payments While You Are Outside The United States, which is available in several different languages. Different countries have different relationships and agreements with the United States. Noncitizens who wish to access benefits while outside the United States must agree to “restricted payment conditions” and must meet “conditions for payment,” including personally appearing at a U.S. embassy or consulate once every six months and being in the United States for at least 30 days every six months, among other demanding conditions. Not only that, but beneficiaries must be able to prove they were in the United States on “the first minute of the first day of any month and stay through the last minute of the last day of that month,” according to the SSA.
Broder also recommends that TPS recipients interested in accessing benefits abroad utilize the SSA’s “Payments Abroad Screening Tool.” It provides a cursory glance as to whether a TPS recipient like Yanez would be able to access his benefits abroad.
Last week, before the decision to terminate TPS for El Salvador, Broder walked Rewire through the tool using the limited knowledge she had of Yanez. The immigration attorney was surprised to learn that Yanez may be able to access benefits, though this was contingent on two things: If he began accessing his benefits now, while still lawfully present in the United States, and if he chose to return to El Salvador, rather than be deported.
Like Kallick, Broder recommends that TPS recipients nearing retirement consult an attorney and if possible, begin accessing their Social Security benefits while still lawfully present in the United States. While every person’s circumstances are unique, it appears that those who return to El Salvador may not be able to access their benefits if they weren’t already receiving them while residing in the United States.
As for Yanez’s assertion that the Trump administration is “stealing” from TPS recipients, it’s hard to argue otherwise. The taxes and benefits into which TPS recipients have paid will likely not be accessed by many TPS recipients, a bulk of whom from El Salvador are older than 25 and have been in the United States for more than 20 years, according to the Journal on Migration and Human Security. That’s decades of taxes and Social Security contributions that will benefit U.S. citizens.
“Mr. Yanez’s statement that not allowing TPS recipients to access their benefits would be akin to ‘stealing’ makes sense to me,” Broder said. “I think that ending TPS and deporting people who have been major contributors to the economy over all these years is bad politics and bad economics. It’s unfair treatment of people who have been part of our communities for many years and in many cases, sending them back to places where their lives have been threatened and they will face many hardships. It’s a very bad idea to end TPS.”
The Salvadoran immigrants who spoke to Rewire were adamant in their desire to “educate” the public on just how much they contribute and what the United States stands to lose when they are forced to leave by the anti-immigration Trump administration.
Araceli Velasquez, a Salvadoran immigrant being targeted for deportation as she remains in sanctuary in a Denver church with her three U.S. citizen sons, told Rewire that ending TPS for her husband Jorge wouldn’t just affect her family, but rather the whole country.
“Jorge’s been working at the same place for sixteen years. A U.S. citizen is not going to come work this job the way Jorge has for sixteen years. The work we do as immigrants coming here to build new life, is not same kind of work citizens engage in. Ending TPS will not just affect us and and our community; it will affect the entire country and destabilize the economy and hurt businesses,” Araceli said.
This was echoed by Jorge, who said many TPS recipients he knows have worked the same job for decades and even their employers seemed unaware of the ramifications of Trump’s DHS ending the humanitarian program.
“If I don’t have TPS, I no longer have my work permit. When I told my boss what was going on [with TPS], he was shocked. He said, ‘First your wife, and now you?’ He was surprised how this all happened so quickly. He wanted to help, he wanted to know what he could do to help me stay—if he could write a letter or something like that,” Jorge said. “If there are immigrants in your life, in your community, they could be next. I hope people understand the people you call employees, friends, they could be next and I hope this motivates them to take action, to call their senators, to ask for a path to residency for all of us,” Jorge said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly suggested that SSA appeared to have changed its screening tool in anticipation of TPS ending for Salvadorans.