TAMPA — The clock is ticking for Marco Antonio Arita.
Unless something changes, the 47-year-old Honduran immigrant loses his standing as a legal resident of the United States in nine weeks.
So do some 411,000 other people who were granted what’s known as Temporary Legal Status because of wars or natural disasters in the 10 countries they called home. The Trump administration imposed a Jan. 4 deadline to begin phasing out the program because conditions in those countries have changed.
Arita, who has lived in the United States more than two decades and whose two children were born here, has no plans yet for what he’ll do next.
“It would be devastating for my whole family,” he said. “I have children, I have a wife, and they depend on my job. None of this makes sense.”
It makes lots of sense, though, to backers of Trump administration policies designed to reduce the number of immigrants.
A court challenge by immigrant advocates “demonstrates how the left wants no restrictions on immigration programs,” said Dale L. Wilcox, executive director of the Immigration Reform Law Institute in Washington, D.C.
“These programs have specific terms, and are not meant to be re-interpreted as yet another vehicle for a borderless America."
Congress created Temporary Protective Status in 1990 for immigrants seeking to escape the ravages of war and natural disaster from selected countries in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. Those granted the status can’t be deported and can legally work in the United States.
The Trump administration wants to end it now, and in September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal cleared the way for the administration to begin proceedings against those from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan.
What will happen come Jan. 4? Will deportations begin?
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Tampa said Wednesday it has no information.
The administration has granted extensions for protected immigrants from two countries — through May for Syrians and through November 2021 for Salvadorans. Immigration advocates say deportation can begin no sooner than March for those from Sudan, Nicaragua, and Haiti.
Meantime, Arita has much at stake in who is chosen as the next U.S. president. Many of the protected immigrants believe a Biden administration would extend their status.
"We just have to wait and see the election results,” he said. “A new government maybe could give us new hope.”
Arita left Honduras after Hurricane Mitch hit the region in 1998, triggering floods and landslides and killing at least 6,500 people. Tens of thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed, according to the Honduran government.
One of them was the home where Arita lived.
He couldn’t find work after that and came to California. After five years, he moved to Tampa and met his wife, Roxana Chinchilla, a 43-year-old El Salvador native who also in the United States under Temporary Protected Status.
Arita doesn’t see his family as the burden that the Trump administration labels many immigrants. He saved up for eight years, bought tools and a truck, and started his own landscaping business. He said he has never sought help from anyone in supporting his wife and their two children — Marc Anthony, 13, and Jennifer, 6.
Arita and Chinchilla each pay $495 a year to renew their Temporary Protective Status.
“I don’t see myself as a public charge,” Arita said. “I only see myself as a person who works for his family. So, why do they want to deport us? Our countries are not prepared to receive us."
Francesca Clerizier, 51, from Haiti, has had Temporary Protected Status since 2010. The mother of six lives in Orlando and is worried about what the future holds for her family.
She has a job with United Here Local 737, the union representing many Walt Disney World workers, and is knocking on doors campaigning for Joe Biden in the presidential race.
She can’t even think about deportation, she said.
“I’m not going anywhere because my kids are here. I have to stay here.”
In deciding what becomes of those on Temporary Protective Status, the U.S. should consider their history, said Lurvin Lizardo, a housekeeper from Tampa and a Honduran community activist.
“It’s simple: We have families," Lizardo said, “American children and a life made in the United States.”
People who hold the status and come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti alone have an estimated 273,000 children who are U.S. citizens, according to the Center for Migration Studies, a New York think tank founded by immigrant advocates.
Two weeks ago, Lizardo attended the kickoff in Los Angeles of a national campaign called “Road to Justice” — an effort by human rights organizations to spread the word about Temporary Protected Status. The bus tour has visited 54 cities in 34 states.
The goal is permanent residency for those who now hold the temporary status.
That’s what Chinchilla and Aritas pray for.
Chinchilla came to the United States 20 years ago. After she left El Salvador, she never heard from her parents or younger brother again. She walked north with a group of other Central Americans and crossed the Texas border in 2000, half a year before the earthquakes that landed the country on the protected status list.
Chinchilla has taken on any job she could find, she said — cleaning offices and restaurants, working in the fields and in construction.
“I feel that work exalts the person," Chinchilla said. “That’s how they educated me at home.”
Once she obtained her protected status, she said, she went to work the next day.
“And now they want to get us out? I think it is not fair.”
Chinchilla’s status is not set to expire until Nov. 5, 2021, but it’s her husband’s deadline in nine weeks that has the family worried.
“We are a family. If one is in trouble, the other is, too.”
Here is the list by country of people granted Temporary Protected Status as of Sept. 30, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
El Salvador: 247,412
South Sudan: 96