I grew up in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, where I not only experienced the best years of my life, but also the collective trauma of a nation. When I was 16, I decided to get politically involved in one of the most vocally anti-government parties in the country. My motivation was fundamentally driven by a desire for change. Today I am fortunate enough to live in a country where I don’t need to fear violence for using my voice to demand change, and so I am calling on Congress to finally step up and fix our broken immigration system.
My life as a teenager consisted of waiting in line for hours for food and medicine, which we were only allowed to buy during certain days of the week depending on the last digit of our ID. In fact, shortages became so chronic that we were asked to scan our fingerprints at supermarkets and pharmacies, which helped authorities keep control over the rationing system. Unfortunately, shortages were not exclusive to food and medicine. Water and electricity only came during certain times of the day, while organized crime was rampant in the powerless nights of Caracas.
It became clear to me that we did not live in a “dysfunctional democracy” like many people claimed, but rather a complete totalitarian state backed by military force. During the protests, dozens of students were killed by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service. Hundreds were permanently injured, and thousands were jailed. The situation became critically unstable, and I decided to temporarily leave Venezuela to pursue my higher education in the U.S. with the hope of finding academic scholarships.
I had always planned on returning home after school, but circumstances in my country became even worse during my time in college. Although I was legally in the U.S. under a temporary student visa, returning to Venezuela had become extremely risky. Luckily, Homeland Security determined that Venezuelan citizens were eligible to apply for temporary protected status (TPS) in the U.S., and so I officially became a TPS-seeker.
TPS is an important program that gives legal status to live and work in the U.S. to people who are fleeing emergencies such as war or natural disasters in their home countries. More than 300,000 people are currently protected by the program, and many of them have been here for decades because the situations in their home countries never improved. They have built lives for themselves here, and started families and businesses.
Unfortunately, TPS holders face a number of challenges in pursuing their American dream because of the uncertainty involved. TPS holders have to renew their status every 18 months, a harsh reminder that everything could be taken from us at any time.
We cannot access credit because we are not permanent residents and do not have the opportunity to build credit scores. This can prove to be difficult for members of the TPS community, especially when applying for a place to live or getting health insurance. Moreover, this lack of access to credit becomes an opportunity cost for every other American because TPS holders forgo consumption that would go back into the economy and American businesses.
The uncertainty surrounding TPS leads to risk aversion among members of the community. TPS holders permanently alter their investment and consumption patterns due to the lack of certainty over their future, depriving the economy of the benefits of organized immigration. It is worth noting that according to a study conducted by Oxford University and Citi in 2018, two-thirds of U.S economic growth since 2011 has been directly contributed to immigration. Immigrants are also two to three times more likely to start a company or create a patented innovation. In fact, immigrants and their children have started 30% of all American businesses, 40% of Fortune 500 companies, and 50% of start-ups valued at more than $1 million, despite only constituting close to 15% of the population.
Immigrants have been at the center of the COVID-19 response and are critical in rebuilding our economy for the future. Bills currently under consideration in Congress would allow TPS holders like me to have a sense of certainty in our futures by providing a pathway to citizenship. Hundreds of thousands of people like me would finally be able to breathe freely.
Victor Guillen is a political consultant at Princeton Strategies and a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic Latino Caucus. He is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Temple University. He writes from Philadelphia.