At a time that the spotlight is on essential workers, a doctor from El Salvador who works for Public Health – Seattle & King County is suing the federal government after his green card application was denied.

Dr. Francisco Arias-Reyes has lived legally in the U.S. for almost 20 years as a recipient of temporary protected status (TPS), put in place for Salvadorans in 2001 after earthquakes devastated their homeland.

His status was thrown into jeopardy in 2018 when the Trump administration announced its intention to remove TPS protections for Salvadorans, as it did for immigrants from a number of other countries.

The county public health department petitioned for Arias-Reyes to get a designation as a skilled worker, which he could use to apply for lawful permanent residency. The 48-year-old Seattleite manages the department’s primary care program, focusing on people who are homeless, immigrants and refugees and those with mental illness.

“Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, his work is more essential than ever,” said a brief filed on his behalf Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied Arias-Reyes’ application on March 30, saying he was ineligible because he overstayed his tourist visa after entering the country in 2000 and lived here for eight months without lawful status before being approved for TPS.

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His attorney, Matt Adams of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), claims USCIS is misinterpreting the law. When someone is granted TPS, that person — for the purpose of applying for a green card — is considered to have legally entered, Adams said. He added the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed that point in another case NWIRP handled a few years ago.

The lawsuit’s emphasis on Arias-Reyes’ public health work amid a pandemic taps into larger questions about whether immigrants seeking legalization or other changes of status should get special consideration if they have been essential or front line workers.

On Tuesday, U.S. House Democrats introduced a “Heroes Act” that would give undocumented immigrants who are essential workers protection from enforcement action until 90 days after the public health emergency ends.

“It is an important nod,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York office of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. But he also said he expects arguments in favor of special treatment for these workers to be a tough sell given another aspect of the pandemic: massive unemployment. President Donald Trump already has limited immigration, citing competition to American workers.

A spokeswoman for USCIS did not speak to questions about whether the agency is giving additional consideration to front line and essential workers but said in a statement that it has “taken steps to help aliens, employers, and others address some of the immigration-related challenges they may face as a direct result of the COVID-19 national emergency.”

Arias-Reyes, talking by phone Tuesday, said he came to the U.S. after graduating from medical school in El Salvador. He wanted to explore whether a career in medicine was possible for him here.

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His degree is recognized in the U.S., but to practice, he would have to take medical boards and do a residency here. He let his visa lapse as he was still weighing the possibilities.

Then the earthquakes hit. “I had to rethink what I was going to do next,” he said.

When the U.S. extended TPS to Salvadorans, he applied and was approved. Choosing not to go through the long physician-licensing process, he took a job as a medical assistant with Sea Mar Community Health Centers.

He later worked for the state Department of Health in its diabetes prevention and control program, then joined the county health department in 2012.

He oversees three primary care clinics, a mobile van program and two school-based centers.

His supervisor, TJ Cosgrove, director of the department’s community health services division, said Arias-Reyes has a “rare, rare combination” of clinical knowledge, sensitivity to traumatized populations and experience in public health and primary care.

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As the novel coronavirus crisis unfolded, Arias-Reyes has overseen shifting primary care toward telemedicine and getting COVID-19 testing at the county’s clinics off the ground.

Every 12 to 18 months after receiving protected status, he has successfully applied for renewal. He now awaits not only the outcome of the lawsuit he just filed but another in California challenging the Trump administration’s ending of TPS for Salvadorans.  While the litigation is pending, the government has extended protections until January.

Afraid to travel for fear his TPS status might raise questions when reentering the U.S., Arias-Reyes hasn’t been back to El Salvador since 2000. His mother and sister, who live there, have visited him in Seattle.

He said gang violence has spiraled in El Salvador since he’s lived in the U.S. and he would be scared to go back.

“El Salvador is a country I don’t know anymore.”