Dan Haar: Protected immigrants celebrate work amid fear on Labor Day
BRIDGEPORT — Fausto Canelas was cleaning buildings in a Norwalk office park on the July day when immigration agents came knocking on the door of the converted garage where he lives.
Inside was Juan Mejia, who lives with Canelas in the East Main Street neighborhood. Mejia had stopped at home between his two daily shifts as a janitor.
Federal agents identified themselves and banged loudly on the door. Mejia didn’t open. Across the driveway, inside the three-family house on the same property, a mother’s voice in Spanish snapped to frightened children, “Don’t open the door!”
As the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents left, Mejia saw the three dreaded letters — ICE — on the backs of their dark blue uniforms.
Canelas, from Honduras, and Mejia, from El Salvador, should have no cause to fear the federal agents. For nearly 21 years, they’re been in the Temporary Protected Status program, a form of asylum granted to people from 11 countries besieged by natural or political disasters. They work legally with decently paying union jobs.
As we kick back on Labor Day, workers in the TPS program such as Canelas and Mejia celebrate it, too. Theirs is a high-wire life between their homelands and their adopted nation, between the full immigrant status that green card holders enjoy and the stealth lives of the many people in their communities with no documentation at all.
They do fear the sysem, with good reason since President Donald Trump took office. Trump is trying to remove TPS status for their two countries and most of the others, and deport them — though the U.S. Court of Appeals in California delayed Trump’s order at least until the first week of January.
Worse, Trump berates immigrant workers and stokes backlash against them with untruths about crime.
“The uncertainty that this government creates is so different from Obama,” Canelas said through an interpreter. “We feel so much more persecuted under this administration.”
And yet, hanging out in the driveway with the hearty 71-year-old Canelas while he directs neighborhood children to a church program, then talking with him in the living room of his small apartment, I can see he chooses joy over misery.
Canelas sits on a wooden chair in the far corner of a living room festooned with images of flowers, a few family pictures, wall calendars, a small microphone stand and amplifier for a friend who sings, and a couple of Catholic icons. As our visit ended late Thursday, he takes a call from someone wondering why he’s not yet at their house for a birthday party I can hear through the phone.
“We have the privilege of having these good jobs,” Canelas said, speaking through Franklin Soults, an official with the 32BJ SEIU union in Connecticut. “You work where we work, you know we have good jobs, we are treated well.”
Three months though Mexico
His job pays $16 an hour under the union contract, with three weeks of vacation time and health benefits — lucrative enough for Canelas to send about $250 a week back to the remote village on the Atlantic coast in Honduras where his very large family lives.
“I feel a little bit fortunate compared to other people. I pay my taxes, I have my Social Security card, I have my driver’s license,” Canelas said, wearing khaki pants, a plain, white, v-neck t-shirt and an unmarked, black baseball cap.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1996, Canelas walked three months through Mexico, crossed the Rio Grande in a makeshift raft, spent three days in the Texas desert and made it to Houston through the underground network of coyote traffickers.
“It was terrible,” Canelas said. “If I had to do it again, I never would. I wouldn’t go back to Mexico. It’s too dangerous.”
He arrived in Bridgeport not long afterward and took jobs — two and three at a time, at minimum wage or barely more — cleaning schools in Weston among other buildings. Later, his wife took a similar route with his daughter from a previous marriage, and joined him even though he and his wife had four children under 12 at home.
“That was the idea, to both come here, to both fight for our children,” he said.
Not so ‘temporary’
Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in the late fall of 1998, killing more than 11,000 people and leaving 2.5 million homeless. “Entire towns were washed into the sea,” Canelas said, though his family’s dwelling, high on a hill, was spared.
Two months later, on Jan 5, 1999, Canelas, his wife and thousands of other immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua received the right to remain and work in the United States under the TPS program. Canelas is among 57,000 Hondurans in the United States under the program, according to Catholic Relief Services, using data from Congress.
In all, 320,000 people hold TPS status including 2,812 in Connecticut. The largest group, 195,000, comes from El Salvador.
They can’t safely go back to their countries, Canelas and many advocates say, because even though the original disasters may have long passed, the TPS nations — including Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Haiti — are economically or politically unstable.
Canelas’ family members helped form a left-leaning Social Democrat political party and one brother was assassinated as part of that, he said. Another brother was killed traveling back home from Canada.
“If you come from here, they think you have money and they can kill you or assault you, there’s a lot of danger, so to travel you have to be very quiet,” he said.
Canelas has returned three times in 23 years, most recently in 2014 after his mother died, and only for a few days — not enough time to see all of his grandchildren, who he said, smiling, number about 30. He’d have to count to know the total.
He said he was questioned very closely at Kennedy Airport on the way back. He and several others, including Mejia, said they would certainly not leave the country while Trump is president.
“I would only do it if I had residency here,” Mejia said.
It’s absurd to consider a program offering basically permanent asylum to be “temporary,” but it’s called that in part because holders such as Canelas and Mejia receive no path to citizenship. That’s the real tragedy in a nation that badly needs more immigrants for economic growth, nowhere more than Connecticut.
A chance of citizenship for people with TPS with clean records, and an increase in legal immigration, would make sense for Connecticut — a state that loses about 20,000 residents a year to other states. Foreign immigration roughly balances that loss of people, while in states such as Massachusetts, the influx of foreign immigrants has been triple the loss to other states in recent years, U.S. Census data shows.
But we don’t have those reforms and there’s no prospect of them under Trump. Former President Barack Obama used his greatest political power on the Affordable Care Act health reform, then was unable to pass a broad immigration bill.
Lacking any hope of a green card that would enable their children to immigrate, Canelas’ wife returned to Honduras a few years after arriving. “Somebody had to go to be with the children,” he said. “It was a decision we had to make.”
American? ‘Of course I am’
When I ask whether he considers himself an American, Canelas doesn’t hesitate.
“Of course I am, 23 years here, it’s my second country. The most beautiful years of my life I’ve given here. I’ve given to the country, but of course I’ve suffered because I’ve been without my family. A lot of suffering, a lot, because you have to maintain the family there, maintain yourself here, you have to make your money with a lot of intelligence.”
He’d like to return for a long visit. “Oh, si, si. I still miss my family, very very much,” he said quietly.
But even if he retires, he’d prefer to live in this country, where he has some family members. “I have the dream of having a residence here so that I could go back to my country for an extended period and bring my wife here.”
By residence, he means permanent resident status. “One lives more peacefully here and there is more opportunity both for me and my family,” he said.
The work appears stable these days, in contrast to what he endured. On a construction job in Florida, he hurt his back, badly, and still suffers constant pain. Lacking a job in the Great Recession, he had to collect unemployment briefly, and had to sign up for Social Security benefits at age 62 — giving him $600 a month. That’s much less than he’d have gotten if he could have waited.
Soon after that, he landed the union job, in late 2009.
Immigrant jobs, oddly
It seems odd that the work Canelas and Mejia perform pays more than most retail and many maunfacturing jobs, and yet the vast majority of members of 32BJ SEIU who clean buildings are immigrants. And yet, some people accuse the immigrants of “stealing” Americans’ jobs.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who work along with me are not born in this country,” Canelas said. “We’re not stealing anything, if anything we are helping Americans.”
About 75 percent of the 3,500 members who clean buildings are immigrants — from many countries — and those jobs come open often, said Juan Hernandez, vice president of 32BJ SEIU in Connecticut.
“Those members are buying houses, are paying taxes to the state and following the law,” Hernandez said. “Why are we trying to get someone like this member out of the country? Because he’s not white and comes from a shithole?”
Trump made that off-color remark when he was talking about Haiti and other TPS countries in January 2018.
Native-born Americans rarely apply for commercial building cleaning jobs despite the pay, said Hernandez, who’s been with the union for 26 years.
Why is that? “The cleaning jobs are not so easy,” said Canelas, who works in the same Norwalk development, Merritt 7, where Hearst Connecticut Media has its main office. “I imagine it could be a little disagreeable for them. They might feel they do not have the kind of respect that you would hope for...They are dirty jobs. You’re underappreciated and you’re looked down at.”
‘Something beautiful’ about Labor Day
There was a time when Canelas and his friends in the TPS program would open the door for federal agents. “They came a few years ago and I answered the door and they showed me a photo and I didn’t recognize the person and they left,” said a neighbor in the three-family house,” José Zavala, also through Soults.
Now, there’s just too much fear.
In another irony, right around the time of that ICE visit to Canelas’ house last month, someone called him from the Bridgeport mayoral campaign of Sen. Marilyn Moore, asking if he would go door to door for her. He had worked for Moore before, and he volunteered for former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
That’s a privilege, too, political work, and Canelas takes it seriously, coming as he does from an activist family. In Honduras, he worked in a hotel, then for a union, then he started a farm before leaving because of economic turmoil, not because of political harassment.
For now, on this Labor Day, these TPS workers — less hailed than the so-called Dreamers in the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program — are safe. “But there’s no concrete timeline as to when they’ll be able to renew, if they’ll be able to renew, and everyone is afraid,” said Alicia Kinsman, a lawyer with the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants.
Canelas, staying low-key for now, seems to have more political activism in him and more hope, which Labor Day stirs.
“There’s something beautiful about that day. In Honduras it’s a huge day, May 1 we celebrate it,” he said. “We should celebrate it a little bit more. We need to do something in Connecticut. We don’t do enough.”
An earlier version of this column misstated the first name of Fausto Canelas as Flavio.