During this Covid-19 pandemic, Florida janitor and SEIU member María Elena Hernández is one of more than 130,000 essential workers with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) routinely risking their lives as service workers.
Despite immigrant workers being a large part of what has kept the economy going through these hard times, many like Hernández—an immigrant from Nicarauga who was visiting family in the U.S. in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch destroyed her home country—may be facing deportation this spring, pending TPS review by the Biden Administration.
“Many people with TPS are afraid to come out and tell their stories for fear of being targeted,” she says. “But I tell them not to be afraid. People need to hear from us to see that we are human and we also have rights and are contributing members of society. We pay our taxes, contribute to our communities and in my case, help workers stand up for their rights.”
As a union member, Hernández has fought and won vacation days, health care, and other benefits for herself and her co-workers. She has supported striking airport workers and helped thousands of workers win a living wage and hundreds of South Florida workers win their own union.
In South Florida, immigrants, including TPS members from countries such as Haiti and Nicaragua, have raised families, built up communities, and created small businesses. Many are essential workers who are helping to reduce the spread of Covid-19. But despite contributing greatly to this country, many TPS holders are terrified that at any moment, they can be separated from their families and deported, or sent to crowded, inhumane detention centers—more dangerous now than ever in the face of Covid-19.
“I have worked for 10 years as a janitor at Nova Southeastern University where the students and faculty rely on me to keep the buildings safe and sanitized,” Hernández says. “When I heard the news last year about the court siding with Trump (over deporting TPS workers), I was devastated. But my co-workers gave me hope to keep on fighting.” As U.S. citizens this past November, my co-workers got out and voted for change.
Congress must act quickly to provide a pathway to citizenship for essential workers and their families, Dreamers and TPS holders.