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Chicago urges protected status for Ecuadorean immigrants

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is co-sponsoring a resolution to offer temporary protected status for undocumented Ecuadoreans in the U.S. | Sun-Times file photo

After heartbreaking testimony from Ecuadorean immigrants whose families were torn apart by a devastating earthquake, Chicago on Wednesday joined the call for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to designate Ecuador for temporary protected status.

At a time when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is talking about building walls and banning Muslims, the resolution approved by the City Council’s Committee on Human Relations sends the opposite message.

Temporary protected status is a six- to 18-month designation granted to immigrants “unable to safely return to their home country due to an ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster or other extraordinary and temporary conditions that prevent safe return.”

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Ecuador on April 16 appears to fit that description.

It killed 660 people, injured 16,000 others and displaced 28,000 residents. Nearly 7,000 buildings were destroyed. More than 24,000 homes and other buildings were damaged, including 560 schools. The price tag for reconstruction is expected to approach $3 billion.

On Wednesday, Ecuadorean national Dagmara Avelar was moved to tears as she told aldermen the story of an extended family torn apart by the earthquake.

“My cousin’s wife suffered an irreplaceable loss. Six of her family members, including four children, died in this incident. Her family was traveling . . . for a vacation not knowing that it was going to be their last. [They] were found together three days after the earthquake,” Avelar said, her voice breaking.

“The grief becomes unbearable when you realize that you are in a different country without any possibility of re-uniting with your family. The undocumented population affected by the earthquake has been living the last three months uncertain of what can be done . . . as they pick up the pieces of lives shattered by tremendous loss. As someone who has lived here as an undocumented person myself, I can attest to the constant fear and anxiety felt . . . not knowing if you will be able to go back home. Avoiding law enforcement at all costs.”

“I miss graduations, marriages, births,” she said. “But most importantly, I miss the last moments of life from family members who I was not able to embrace again after October 22, 1999, which was the day I immigrated to the United States.”

Jonathan David Espinosa was at ground zero in Ecuador when the devastating earthquake hit.

“My father, my brother and I were arriving home when the car started to move without control. Houses moving, collapsing. People running and screaming. For two days, we were without electricity, water and phones,” he said.

“The next morning, we saw the seriousness of the earthquake. So many houses collapsed. The downtown area disappeared. We couldn’t believe it. Everyone was looking for their families and panicked. Ambulances were everywhere. It was complete destruction. Life changed in seconds.”

If the full City Council approves the resolution co-sponsored by Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Chicago will join New York City, Newark and Minneapolis in calling on the Department of Homeland Security to grant TPS status to roughly 146,000 undocumented Ecuadoreans living in the U.S.

“The undocumented Ecuadorean population needs a light of hope. . . . A TPS can provide that relief. We’ll be able to apply for permission to stay in the United States, work and, when necessary, travel to Ecuador as we begin to work to rebuild our country,” Espinosa said.

Ramirez-Rosa noted that undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. are often the “primary source of income” for relatives back home.

“Can you imagine you’re Ecuadorean trying to build up your life after this earthquake and suddenly you learn that your husband or your wife living in the U.S. who is earning money and sending it back is facing deportation? And now, they have to hire immigration attorneys. And now, they no longer have the ability to work and send that money that you need back home,” the alderman said.

“Can you imagine that you are an undocumented Ecuadorean in the U.S. and your mother or your father or your children died in this earthquake and you’re unable to go home to bury your dead?”