Nepalis on temporary status in the US dread—and await—deportation

  • Nearly 5,000 Nepalis are currently living in the United States on the Temporary Protected Status, granted after the devastating earthquake in 2015.
- Wufei Yu, New York

Oct 13, 2018-

Sita Ram Subedi was honoured by the first vice president of Nepal in 2013 for his dedication to education, rural sanitation, and social development for more than twenty years. That same year, the financial pressure of supporting his family and relatives landed him in the United States. Now, five years after coming to America, Subedi is facing deportation following the Trump administration’s announcement this summer to end the Temporary Protected Status of all Nepalis next year.

Sita Ram, 48, first arrived in the country as a tourist and overstayed his visa. He has been a handyman and construction worker, earning about $3,000 a month while working seven days a week. He sends half of his salary to Nepal, he said, to support his 30 family members and friends, as well as Social Development Organization Nepal, a non-profit based in Kathmandu. If he gets deported, the financial assistance he sends home will end soon.

“I want to stay for much, much longer than nine months,” Sita Ram said in his dimly-lit room in Ridgewood, Queens in New York City. Three other Nepalis were cramped in the apartment, with a painting of Lord Shiva hanging on the wall. “In nine months, they [the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement] will knock at my door and say, okay, now leave the country.”

Sita Ram is among thousands of Nepalis whose lives and plans have been upended since the decision was announced in late April to end the temporary status on June 24, 2019. Since late 2017, the Trump administration has terminated the temporary status for about 400,000 nationals from Nepal and five other countries—Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras and El Salvador, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for over two decades. The administration has defended its policy change by arguing conditions in the home countries have notably improved and saying “temporary means temporary.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, nearly 15,000 Nepali citizens with clean legal records in the United States were granted TPS on June 24, 2015, two months after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country, killing over 8,000 people and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. Since then, thousands of TPS holders have applied for student visas or political asylum since the announcement by Trump Administration, according to Nepali immigration activists.

Nepali community leaders in New York said that a few hundred TPS holders had returned to Nepal voluntarily. A few attained green cards because of their American relatives. Activists estimate that about 5,000 Nepalis are solely relying on TPS at the moment to legally remain in the United States.

“The remaining 5,000 people are currently in a deadlock situation, while hundreds of thousands of Nepalis back home count on their financial support,” said Shailesh Shrestha, a Nepali activist and long-time TPS advocate based in New Jersey.

Three years after the earthquake, the reconstruction of Nepal has been sluggish.

According to the National Reconstruction Authority in Kathmandu, over 200,000 torn-down houses, which counts for more than a third of the houses destroyed in the earthquake, are yet to be set up. The head of the office who is responsible for overseeing the reconstruction work has changed three times in the last three years. Nearly a dozen Nepalis interviewed for this story said corruption has been delaying the country’s recovery efforts.

Back home in Nepal, Sita Ram’s family says they feel bad that he is not welcomed by another country.

“The [Nepali] people in rural areas love him,” Namuna Subedi, Sita Ram’s 19-year-old daughter, said. Namuna, who studies social work at Kadambari Memorial College in Kathmandu, finds it heart-wrenching to witness the humiliation of her role model. She said it was her father’s contribution that encouraged her to pursue a career in rural development.

As the youngest of Sita Ram’s three children, Namuna is fully relying on her father’s financial support to cover her tuition and living expenses. Her elder sister, who is currently working as a lab technician in Kathmandu, was ready to help with her tuition if her father is forced to leave the United States. But she earns only $250 a month, less than a tenth of her father’s U.S. wage.

Subedi works long hours seven days a week to send money home. Photo: Wufei Yu for The Post

According to his calculation, if he starts an organic farming business as he has wanted, he will have to sell some land to start his business. He says his expected income is not even half as much as his wage in New York.

Last year, Sita Ram applied for a 72-month loan for his Toyota Corolla and an automobile insurance, which costs him about 700 dollars per month. In order to access more opportunities in both New York City and Long Island, he moved from East Brooklyn to his shared room in Queens last week.

A year after arriving in the US, Sita Ram applied for political asylum but he says he feels “completely helpless” about his application, which has been pending for four years in the immigration court.

As a TPS advocate, Shrestha said there isn’t enough support from the Nepali community. Compared to citizens of other countries, the under-representation of the Nepalis in media means there are fewer stories about the pain of people like Sita Ram, he said. “I’ve been trying to bring our voice to the mainstream,” Shrestha added. “But whenever I asked my people to come together to propose a bill, they are hesitant and prefer to stay in Jackson Heights.”

Many Nepalis who currently hold TPS arrived in the United States for a better working opportunity, higher income, and better education for the next generation. Most of them have never considered going back to Nepal in a few years—or ever if they don’t have to.

A number of Nepalis said they planned to stay for a longer duration since the Department of Homeland Security was renewing the status of some Caribbean and African nationals for more than ten years until the Trump administration terminated TPS for five other countries.

As months go by, the fear of deportation is mounting, especially for the less well-off, according to Ang Dawa Sherpa. Ang Dawa, 60, arrived in the U.S. legally with a conditional permanent residence in 1993 and overstayed after his permit expired. After being undocumented for 22 years, he received the TPS in 2015.

His U.S.-born daughter Angela Sherpa turned 21 last year, making him eligible to apply for a green card. Even though he already started his application in August, the panic of family separation has haunted him after his lawyer warned him that it may take up to a year for officials to review his application.

“I’m lucky enough. Many people are in worse situations,” he said, citing other TPS holders who do not own land back home, work overtime to toil for a pittance in New York, and are frightened by any query about their immigration status.

Some community leaders believe secretive and harsh deportations might be suspended only if the Democrats dominate the Congress after the midterm election. “Change is not that easy in America, but it is absolutely possible,” Shailesh said. In recent weeks, he has been asking community members to lobby and cooperate with groups from other nationalities.

The immigrants right activist group TPS Alliance, in which social justice activist group Adhikaar represents the Nepali voice, launched TPS caravan on mid-August. The caravan is visiting dozens of cities around the U.S and plans to arrive in Washington D.C. this November.

Although there are two separate bills awaiting a vote in the House and the Senate—the American Promise Act and the SECURE Act (the Security, Enforcement, and Compassion United in Reform Efforts Act)—it is unclear whether they stand any chance of being approved before reaching President Trump for his signature. Last week, a federal judge blocked Trump’s effort to end the TPS for 300,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. But Nepal is not in the list of reprieve.

Sita Ram admits that he never had time to think about going back because he was always busy working. Now, even though he knows he can’t earn as much back in Nepal, he finds some comfort in the fact that the worst-case scenario would be to return home. “But I don’t have a home,” he said. “I lost my house and I’ll have to rebuild a new one.”

Wufei Yu is a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York.


Published: 13-10-2018 06:07

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