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A 43 Day Hunger Strike to Protect Immigrant Families

by Benjamin Zepeda

Benjamin Zepeda is a 17-year-old from Los Angeles, California. He is the son of TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador and is a youth leader of the National TPS Alliance, a grassroots organization led by immigrant TPS families across the country to advocate towards a permanent residency for individuals with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Throughout the last two months, I spent 43 days supporting hunger strikers in Washington, D.C. while they fasted outside in the cold, on rainy and windy days, calling on Congress to protect immigrant families–hundreds of thousands of families like mine who could be separated without urgent and immediate action

Communities across the country are demanding that Congress deliver on a long-overdue pathway to citizenship for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders. TPS is a designation granted by the U.S. government that provides work authorization and protections from deportation for people who cannot return to their countries after crises like a natural disaster or political upheaval. More than half of TPS holders come from El Salvador, and the rest are from Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela. This program is a lifeline for families like mine, who have been able to build our lives here over many years.

On average, TPS holders have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. They are deeply ingrained in our communities and valued members of our workforce who contribute more than $4.6 billion in taxes every year to support federal and state services. There are more than 250,000 children of TPS holders who are U.S. citizens like me that attend school here.

The Trump Administration tried to dismantle TPS over its four years in office, but through the tireless advocacy of TPS families and Ramos v. Nielsen – a 2018 lawsuit led by TPS families in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – the program survived their racist and anti-immigrant attacks. I have been proud to be a part of this lawsuit as a plaintiff, representing children of TPS holders from across the country.

Now, it’s time for the Biden Administration and Congress to take the next step and ensure that the 400,000 TPS beneficiaries who have built their lives in the U.S. can live here permanently, free from the fear of family separation. The conditions in TPS countries remain largely unchanged since they were first designated. Ongoing natural disasters, political crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic have made it impossible for these families to even consider returning to their countries of origin.

In March, the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act (H.R.6) with bipartisan support, legislation which would provide a pathway to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 4.4 million immigrants living in the U.S., including TPS holders, Dreamers, and other undocumented individuals.  It is now in the hands of the Senate to pass this bill, include legalization provisions in the next budget bill, or to push for permanent residency through all other available avenues.

The current proposals for a pathway to citizenship are the result of years of work of TPS families and allies. One day after the passage of H.R.6, TPS families began a 43-day hunger strike to urge the Biden Administration and Congress to take immediate action, a strike that just ended on the last day of April. I’m proud that I worked in solidarity with hunger strikers and campaign organizers to provide social media and technical support.

Despite it being my final year of high school amidst a global pandemic, I could not step away from supporting a cause so close to my heart. My parents could not participate in the hunger strike due to health conditions, so I went to represent them, while still participating in my classes remotely.

I stood in Washington D.C. alongside members of the TPS community, who fasted outside in the cold, on rainy and windy days, standing for hundreds of thousands of other TPS holders and we have yet to see a resolution for TPS holders. We urgently call on Congress and the Biden Administration to fully restore TPS, expand the program, and finally provide permanent residency for my parents and for all TPS holders. They must protect immigrant communities – there is simply no more time to waste.

For more information on the National TPS Alliance, please find us on Facebook (@TPSAlliance) and Twitter (@TPS_Alliance).

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