The Trump administration said Monday that conditions in El Salvador have improved enough since a series of earthquakes hit the country in 2001 that 200,000 people who fled to the U.S. must now go home.
But advocates say revoking temporary protection status for Salvadorans – including an estimated 5,900 living in North Carolina – would be disastrous for those immigrants and their children who were born in the U.S., and would disrupt the U.S. economy by removing business owners, workers, homeowners and consumers who have become deeply invested in the places where they live.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” Gigi Gardner, a Raleigh immigration lawyer, said of those who believe it’s time to send Salvadorans home. “It has been almost 17 years. But unfortunately, in El Salvador, their economy is still struggling and they haven’t adequately recovered. In the meantime, these people have now become accustomed to the U.S., and the U.S. economy has become dependent on them as well.”
Gardner said she has helped 20 to 30 Salvadorans over the years file paperwork to maintain their protected status, which has to be renewed every 18 months. Under the change announced Monday, protection provided to Salvadorans by TPS will end Sept. 9, 2019, and any immigrant who has not found another legal means to stay in the U.S. will have to leave or be subject to deportation.
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The estimated 193,000 children born in the U.S. to Salvadorans here under the program are American citizens, but because of their age, if their parents leave, many would have to go along.
What TPS is
TPS is used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to give refuge to residents of a country experiencing extraordinary difficulties such as natural disasters or civil war. Immigration advocates say it’s an important tool for providing humanitarian aid. It allows recipients to work and get driver’s licenses and pay the same taxes as all other residents. It includes provisions for deporting recipients convicted of serious crimes.
Trump officials have said TPS is a failure of immigration policy, because it was created to provide temporary help but has been used by some recipients for a decade or more.
In November, the Trump administration announced it would revoke TPS for those who came to the U.S. from Haiti when a major earthquake hit there in 2010. About 58,000 Haitians are living in the U.S. under the program, including as many as 2,500 in North Carolina.
About 6,200 Hondurans also are in North Carolina under the program, and the Trump administration is expected to make a decision soon on their status, as well.
Salvadorans are the largest group of TPS recipients. Announcing the decision on El Salvador, Kirstjen M. Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security, said, “The decision to terminate TPS for El Salvador was made after a review of the disaster-related conditions upon which the country’s original designation was based and an assessment of whether those originating conditions continue to exist as required by statute. Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the Secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated.”
However, Gardner and others pointed to a travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State in February 2017 that remains in place, saying, “Gang activity is widespread in El Salvador. There are thousands of gang members operating in the country, including members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street (M18). Gangs (maras) focus on extortion, violent street crime, narcotics and arms trafficking. Muggings following ATM or bank withdrawals are common, as are armed robberies at scenic-view stops (miradores). While the majority of the violence occurs between rival gangs and there is no information to suggest U.S. citizens are specifically targeted, its pervasiveness increases the chance of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The advisory tells visitors to travel in groups; to avoid night travel and any travel on public transportation, especially buses; and warns of armed robberies in national parks.
Juan Vasquez, who works at El Paseo, his brother’s Salvadoran restaurant in Raleigh, said many of their customers are TPS recipients and have been worried about what they would do if they lost protected status.
“They were talking about it this morning,” he said Monday. “I mean, it’s hard to live in El Salvador. You can find a job, but you only make seven to 10 dollars a day, so it’s not enough to support even one person. And the violence. You never know when something is going to happen.”
Vasquez said parents here are worried about leaving their children, and worried about taking them to a country they have never known.
“This is a bad decision,” he said. “We do a lot for this country. We work hard.”
An estimated 16 percent of El Salvador’s economy comes from money sent to family members in the country by people living and working in the U.S.
Nicole Svajlenka, a senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said that with the date for ending protections for Salvadorans set 20 months away, Congress might be able to forge some permanent reforms that would help people who need it.
“One can hope,” she said.