Salvadorans face tough choice: Stay in U.S. illegally or return home
Thousands of Salvadoran nationals across the country fear deportation amid news that the Trump administration plans to end the temporary assistance program known as TPS. The AP spoke to a group of them in Houston and Los Angeles Tuesday. (Jan. 8)
President Trump ignited agonized debates among nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador by ending their temporary legal status in the United States.
Many have lived here under the Temporary Protected Status program since 2001, when a pair of earthquakes devastated their homeland.
They work, pay taxes and try to live the American Dream. Since arriving, they've had 192,000 children who are U.S. citizens. Now their lives are being uprooted as they decide whether to return to El Salvador by the September 2019 deadline or risk deportation if they stay without legal protections.
Does the family return to a country that has one of the highest homicide rates in the world? Do the parents go home and leave their U.S.-born children behind?
They "are our friends, colleagues, and neighbors. They are teachers, business owners, nurses," said Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., where 41,000 protected Salvadorans live.
"Thousands of families will worry about being torn apart because of this callous and irrational decision, but we will continue looking for solutions that keep our families together and our residents safe," she said.
Supporters of Trump's move note that the program was meant to be "temporary" when created by Congress in 1990 to allow foreigners to remain in the U.S. only a short time during armed conflicts, natural disasters or other extraordinary circumstances in their home countries.
Until Monday, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama kept extending their protections.
Here's a look at some of the families now facing life-altering decisions:
Oregon: Carlos Garcia
The American Dream that Carlos Garcia has been striving for has suddenly turned into what he described as the "American nightmare."
Garcia, 58, fled El Salvador 17 years ago with his two sons. He now works detailing cars and installing windows in Bend, Ore., and said Trump's decision has left him traumatized.
"What am I going to do now? I’ve been a tax-paying resident of this country and I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do," Garcia said.
Adding to his anguish is both his sons are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides protections for DREAMers brought to the U.S. as children. Trump is terminating that program, but said Tuesday he is open to a compromise with Congress to preserve it.
"How can anyone live under these circumstances of not knowing what's going to happen this month, or this year?" Garcia said. "The main problem here is the mental health of 200,000 Salvadorans who don't know what the outcome will be."
New Jersey: Veronica Salguero
Veronica Salguero is dealing with the news that she will lose her protection status through the eyes of her three U.S.-born daughters.
Her oldest, 12, has special needs and attends a private school in Merrillville, N.J. Salguero doubts they could find the same care back home in a country she hasn't seen for 17 years and one overwhelmed by drug cartel violence.
"This is their country. They speak English first and also speak Spanish ... but it would hurt their futures," Salguero said. "It would be like clipping their wings if I have to take them to another country they don't know."
Salguero is a commercial cleaner who belongs to the Service Employees International Union, which has lobbied Trump and pressed Congress to craft a solution to the plight of people like her.
For Salguero, the options are horrific: "How am I going to go back to my country, which is in the aftermath of armed conflict, gang activity, kidnappings?" she said. "For me, it's a country I don't recognize."
Indiana: Elmer Pena
The only decision Elmer Pena has reached is he'll never separate from his three U.S.-born children.
He worries about taking them to his unstable homeland, which they've never visited. He also worries about staying in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at risk of arrest and deportation.
"Not even a dog would leave their babies behind," said Pena, referring to his two sons, 10 and 8, and his 6-year-old daughter.
Pena has worked for a warehousing company for 18 years, owns a car and his home in eastern Indianapolis.
"I feel bad, because I haven't done anything wrong," Pena said. "I haven't hurt anyone. I pay my taxes. Now, I am being treated like I'm not a part of this country."
Arizona: Adonias Arevalo
Trump's decision is far-reaching for the Arevalo family. Two cousins are house cleaners in Los Angeles. Another cousin works at a frozen food packing plant in Washington, D.C. Another is a house cleaner in Boston.
Adonias Arevalo, 26, who lives in Phoenix, said none of them will return to El Salvador because of the raging gang violence. They know how his father, a street vendor, died — shot in the head by gang members in western El Salvador after he refused to pay extortion money.
That's why the family will spend the next 18 months saving as much money as possible and figuring out how to live in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants.
"How are we going to survive in hiding?" said Arevalo, who is facing uncertainty because he is enrolled in DACA. "I think definitely (they) will do whatever (they) can. But essentially, get prepared, save money and see our options."
Tennessee: Reina Arévalo
Reina Arévalo isn't just worried about her family as she ponders her future.
She opened her own restaurant — Pupuseria Reina La Bendicion — six years ago in Nashville and is agonizing over the disruption Trump's order will cause.
"I don’t know what would happen to my employees," Arévalo said in a phone interview through an interpreter provided by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. "It would have major consequences for them."
Arévalo has plenty to worry about herself. She's lived in Nashville close to 20 years, has one daughter and two grandchildren. She knows her family will remain in the U.S. since they are citizens, but she doesn't know what she will do.
"If I were to return to El Salvador, I would have no way to sustain myself. It would be really sad for me to leave my family," she said. "The one thing I know is I'm not going to give up. I’m going to keep fighting."
Contributing: Lauren Hernandez, The (Ore.) Statesman Journal; Steph Solis, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press; Daniel Gonzalez, The Arizona Republic; Fatima Hussein, The Indianapolis Star; Dave Boucher, The Tennessean.