ST. LOUIS — A unanimous Supreme Court ruling on Monday that says thousands of people living in the U.S. for humanitarian reasons are ineligible to apply to become permanent residents sounded alarm bells in central Missouri, where about 500 people work in meat packaging and other plants.
Many of them entered the country illegally in 2001, after a series of earthquakes devastated El Salvador. They have since stayed, reapplying every 18 months for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which allowed them to live and work in the U.S. As they established roots, the workers hoped to become legal residents and, eventually, U.S. citizens.
But in the high court’s ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that federal immigration law prohibits people who entered the country illegally and now have TPS from seeking “green cards” to remain in the country permanently.
“It’s bad for everybody,” a woman who has lived in Marshall, Missouri, for years under TPS said of the ruling. She didn’t want to be named publicly because of possible repercussions to her and her family for doing so during a time of uncertainty and angst.
By her estimate, there are about 500 people with TPS in the Marshall area; most of them entered the U.S. illegally. With TPS, she said, they mainly work at Cargill, ConAgra and other plants in Sedalia and Concordia.
“What are we going to do?” she asked. “How are we going to work without papers? Missouri is one of the hardest states to work without papers. How can we continue to pay taxes, pay for the house and the cars? … I feel like anything that I have worked for or built up to at this point can be torn away from me.”
The outcome in a case involving a couple from El Salvador who have been in the U.S. since the 1990s turned on whether people who entered the country illegally and were given humanitarian protections were ever “admitted” into the United States under immigration law.
Kagan wrote that they were not. “The TPS program gives foreign nationals nonimmigrant status, but it does not admit them. So the conferral of TPS does not make an unlawful entrant ... eligible” for a green card, she wrote.
The House of Representatives already has passed legislation that would make it possible for TPS recipients to become permanent residents, Kagan noted. The bill faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.
President Joe Biden has said he supports the change in the law. But his administration, like the Trump administration, argued that current immigration law doesn’t permit people who entered the country illegally to apply for permanent residency.
On the other side were immigrant groups that argued many people who came to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons have lived in the country for years, given birth to American citizens and put down roots in the U.S.
“Always, if there is a way to enter legally you should enter legally,” said Ken Schmitt, an immigration attorney from south St. Louis County. “The problem is very often there is no legal line to get into. One doesn’t just wake up one day in El Salvador and say I am going to wait in line and get in.”
Federal courts around the country had come to conflicting decisions about whether the grant of TPS status was, by itself, enough to enable an immigrant to try to obtain permanent residency.
Former President Donald Trump tried to cancel the program for many immigrants, stoking fear they could be sent back to their homelands where they haven’t lived in many years.
“All of these families that are established in the United States and have lived in our communities for decades faced a very real threat,” said Lisa Koop, a lawyer with the National Immigrant Justice Center who also teaches at Notre Dame’s law school.
In 2001, the U.S. gave Salvadoran migrants legal protection to remain in the U.S. after a series of earthquakes in their home country. People from 11 other countries are similarly protected. The countries are: Haiti, Honduras, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.
In March, there were 319,465 people in the U.S. under TPS whose native countries had been hit by natural disasters or incredible violence, down from 436,869 in October 2017, according to the U.S. government. About 60% of the recipients are from El Salvador. California has the largest number of TPS recipients, or 54,285. Missouri has 1,035.
Monday’s decision does not affect immigrants with TPS who initially entered the U.S. legally and then, say, overstayed their visa, Kagan noted. Because those people were legally admitted to the country and later were given humanitarian protections, they can seek to become permanent residents.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.