In 2001, two 7.6 earthquakes shook El Salvador. More than 1,000 people were killed, and homes across the nation were destroyed. With little economic opportunity, many Salvadorans packed their bags and moved north, to try their luck in the U.S.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS) allowed about 200,000 Salvadorans to live and work in the country, building a home for nearly two decades. Now, they have until Sept. 9, 2019 to return to El Salvador, work to cement their immigration status if eligible, or face deportation.
About 55,000 Salvadorans in California — roughly a quarter of the country’s TPS recipients — are estimated to have protected status, according to the Center for Migration Studies.
That legal status may soon be up in the air. Newly sworn-in Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen — promoted from her spot as a top White House aide — announced Monday that disaster-related conditions related to El Salvador’s TPS status no longer exist.
But ending the protections based on its initial cause reneges on the humanitarian aspect of the TPS program altogether, immigration activists say. Salvadoran Juan Rivera, spokesperson for San Francisco’s Central American Resource Center, says increased violence in El Salvador means that something as simple as taking a cab can pose grave dangers.
“She doesn’t take into account that the conditions of violence are not better, they have only gotten worse,” Rivera says. “That really increases the fear of folks going back.”
In its first year, the Trump administration has announced the end of protections for Salvadorans, Haitians, Sudanese, and Nicaraguans, while granting a six-month extension for Hondurans. Nepal, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen are the remaining untouched countries in the TPS program — for now.
With Monday’s announcement, a Trump administration strategy emerged: Take away the legal status of immigrants to force more out of the country, or into the shadows as an undocumented immigrant.
“I think it’s a nefarious plot by the administration to use this as a bargaining chip to get [Trump’s] wall,” Rivera says of ending protections for multiple countries. “I think it’s an incredible and shameful way to treat these folks who have been here for almost two decades and have been vetted.”
Currently, immigrants with protected status must reapply every 18 months, paying fees and undergoing the vetting process each time. The Center for Migration Studies also estimates that 273,000 U.S. citizens have a parent protected by TPS.
Plus, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) in San Francisco estimates that deporting all Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian TPS holders would mean a $45 billion loss in GDP over a decade.
ILRC attorney Allison Davenport advises the TPS community to immediately get a consultation by a trusted community organization, and determine options to stay. Some may be eligible if they have family members in the military, are victims of crimes, or if they apply for asylum.
With unsafe conditions in El Salvador, many will fight to stay in their homes while immigration advocates continue to lobby for permanent solutions.
“Nobody wants to go back,” Rivera says. “We are going to be looking for alternatives.”
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly. Imojadad@sfweekly.com | @idamoj