Santiago Portillo anxiously counted the days before a meeting that his boss at a Twin Cities erosion control company had scheduled with an immigration attorney last fall.
At the time, Portillo and three relatives working at Lakeville-based J&R Larson were already bracing for an end to a program that has granted El Salvador natives temporary permission to stay and work since the 2001 earthquakes there. His boss, Jim Larson, was considering a costly, time-consuming way to help: sponsoring the four workers for employment-based green cards.
“Santi, I want to adopt you — you and your crew,” Larson told Portillo.
Employers in Minnesota and elsewhere have voiced concerns about plans to end deportation reprieve programs for citizens of countries that experienced upheavals — though relatively few are willing or able to go as far as Larson to keep workers.
The announcement that the government would wind down Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Salvadorans over an 18-month span came Monday, followed days later by a report that Trump disparaged countries covered by the program in a meeting with lawmakers. The administration has also said it would end TPS for Haiti and Nicaragua, and a decision is looming on a similar program for Liberians, a fixture of nursing home and other care-facility jobs in the metro.
TPS critics welcome the moves, saying these programs have continued long after natural disasters struck or civil strife ended, shielding many who came to the United States illegally or overstayed visas.
“TPS was not created to provide low-wage workers to employers,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, an influential group that backs reducing immigration. “It was a humanitarian program that has been extended far beyond any definition of ‘temporary.’ ”
Portillo started working for Larson almost six years ago. At 16, he’d crossed into the United States illegally to join uncles already living here. He qualified for TPS after the earthquakes the following year.
Larson has come to see Portillo as a key player on his team of about 30 full-time workers. He holds a commercial driver’s license, drives a dump truck and specializes in laying sod. Such positions are tough to fill, Larson said. Last summer, he hired a driver about to turn 70, his only applicant for a vacancy he advertised widely.
“Our younger generation all want to be button-pushers and video game programmers,” he said.
Portillo first told Larson that he, two uncles and another relative working at the company were worried about what the Trump administration might do early last year.
“Don’t worry,” Larson said. “He’ll only take out the bad guys. You’re good guys. You’ll get to stay.”
Later, Larson started worrying too.
TPS supporters argue that beneficiaries have put down roots and earned a shot at staying permanently rather than being returned to troubled homelands. Critics say the administration is restoring the program to the short-lived reprieves they say it was designed to provide.
Several congressional proposals seek to grant TPS recipients a path to citizenship. U.S. senators working on a deal to protect recipients of DACA, the Obama deportation reprieve program for young immigrants, pitched adding on TPS recipients in a Thursday meeting with Trump, when he allegedly made a vulgar comment about Haiti and African countries in the program.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some employers have pushed for extending these deportation reprieve programs. A recent Center for Migration Studies report showed top jobs for TPS recipients are in construction, landscaping and hospitality.
In Minnesota, employers have reported heightened anxiety among immigrant employees, some of whom work in hard-to-fill health care and other jobs, says Bill Blazar, the head of the state Chamber of Commerce. But he says companies often do not track which immigration programs granted employees their work permits.
Patti Cullen, who heads the trade group Care Providers of Minnesota, agrees. She said nursing homes and other members might not know about TPS changes, but they generally worry about moves to limit legal immigration, which they see as a key source of workers. Last year, members reported 3,000 vacancies for nursing assistant positions alone.
“We do have a lot of providers who have a very international flavor when it comes to their workforce,” she said.
Mehlman of FAIR says some employers are facing a problem of their own creation: They have come to rely on pliable immigrant labor, workers with little leverage to reject low wages and poor working conditions. Now employers say they need these workers because Americans are unwilling to accept the same terms.
“The attitude now is, ‘I don’t have the exact workers at the exact wage I want to pay, so the government owes me a source of imported labor,’ ” he said.
Mehlman said genuine shortages of workers with certain skills do exist — but that’s an argument for a shift to the merit-based immigration system Trump has championed, which will better match immigrants the U.S. lets in with the skills employers need, he said.
Putting down roots
To Larson, Portillo’s boss, there is no doubt the loss of his Salvadoran workers would hurt his business. He said he also made the decision to sponsor them because he feels for them. Portillo owns a home in Maplewood and has three U.S.-born children, including 8-year-old twins with special needs who insist on speaking English to their parents.
Immigration attorney Misti Binsfeld encouraged Larson to pursue work-based permanent residence for his four workers but cautioned the process has its challenges. Under it, the U.S. Labor Department must certify the company could not find qualified U.S. workers for the jobs. When Larson called to tell Portillo he had decided to help, “I almost cried,” Portillo said.
Steve Thal, who also has an immigration law practice in the metro, says Trump’s election spurred more calls from employers concerned they might lose their immigrant workers. For one manufacturer, Thal reviewed practices to ensure the company complied with requirements to hire legal workers. The employer also wanted to connect workers worried about their status with other immigration lawyers.
Most TPS recipients cannot count on an employer in their search for other options to stay legally, Thal said. He has a client whose adult U.S. citizen daughter is sponsoring her for a green card. The courts are still debating whether to allow TPS recipients who came illegally to adjust their status without leaving the country and triggering a yearslong ban on returning.
“El Salvador is a small and violent country,” said Thal’s client, Yesenia, who runs a small housecleaning business and asked that only her first name be used. “We all have the same fear of returning.”
In a sense, Larson and Portillo said, Monday’s announcement about the end of TPS for El Salvador was better-than-expected news, giving them 18 extra months to work on the green card process. In the meantime, Portillo said, “There is nothing we can do to thank Jim except work hard.”