S.F. Judge Grants Vulnerable Immigrants a Temporary Reprieve

Fredy Ochoa plays with his sons in the Mission District, June 6, 2018. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Mission resident Fredy Ochoa sighed with relief once he heard that ICE couldn’t deport him this coming September. The possibility still looms in January 2020, but the extra four months grants him peace of mind.

“It’s like a relief. Oh my God, like, it feels good,” Ochoa tells SF Weekly.

On Feb. 28, the Department of Homeland Security announced certain temporary protected status immigrants, like Ochoa, could continue to stay in the country legally until Jan. 2, 2020.

Before the announcement, Salvadoran TPS holders like Ochoa were looking at a possible September deportation date — no matter how long they’ve lived in the United States.

Temporary Protected Status is a legal immigration program that the government offers to countries facing a humanitarian disaster. It’s not a path to citizenship, but it allows those citizens to work and live legally in the country if they maintain a clean criminal record.

However, as soon as the country’s TPS designation expires, beneficiaries from that country become undocumented, legally allowing ICE to deport them.

Ochoa benefits from the DHS announcement since he’s from El Salvador, which was granted TPS in 2001 after an earthquake ravaged the country.

The safeguard, established in February, makes him one of the lucky ones, as the temporary extension applies only to four out of the nine countries with TPS: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Sudan.

While the crisis is national in scope, San Francisco led the efforts to win extensions for refugees from those four countries. Nine TPS residents, who were from El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan, and Nicaragua, filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Immigration Court in March 2018. In Ramos v. Nielsen, they stated that DHS was violating both their and their children’s constitutional rights.

Judge Edward Chen heard the case last summer, and it still awaits a ruling. But based on the urgency of the case, Chen ordered a temporary injunction in October that would apply nationwide — but only to nationals from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, since they were the original countries listed in the lawsuit. The temporary injunction meant that no one could be deported from those countries until he decided an official ruling.

But how long would this injunction last, people asked? Well, Chen left that between the plaintiffs and DHS.

Ahilan Arulanantham, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers who worked at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the months following the October injunction involved plenty of negotiations between both parties. After some back and forth, it was finally decided on a nine-month extension after the original injunction date. Thus, the Jan. 2, 2020 deadline.

Arulanantham says the deal was better than nothing, but he still wants TPS holders to become permanent residents in the United States, which he hopes to achieve through the lawsuit.

“We look forward to trying to protect the rights of TPS holders through this case, but at the same time we recognize they need more than nine months,” Arulanantham says.

The case will be heard again this summer, but that might not be the end. Like all court cases, it can get appealed, causing TPS holders to scramble again once the January 2020 date passes by.

“They need the political process to give them what they deserve,” Arulanantham says.

Claudia Lainez, an Oakland resident, agrees. She wants her daughter, a student at UC Santa Cruz, to stop worrying about her family’s future.

“I think it’s temporary relief,” Lainez says. “Hopefully within the less than a year we have left, we have a permanent solution.”

There are some silver linings: On March 8, DHS announced it would extend the South Sudanese TPS status until November 2020. Still, that ignores Honduras, Nepal, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria.

And for TPS holders, that means the battle is far from over.

“We just had had some lobbying last month and we are planning to get more people in the Bay Area and see if people would go for a resolution for something to be permanent,” Lainez says.

Ochoa is considering speaking with local legislators to bring more awareness, too. He says he won’t rest completely until he’s gained residency.

“Only four more months, that’s not the remedy,” he says. “We want permanent residence. It’s already a nightmare them trying to take that status away from us.

“I want to continue fighting,” he adds. “There is hope.”