In what advocates and officials describe as the most formidable blow yet by the Trump administration to immigrants in California, federal authorities announced this week that nearly 50,000 Salvadorans who currently live legally in the state no longer can stay in the country.
Homeland security officials said Monday that the government was ending Temporary Protected Status for nearly 200,000 people from El Salvador currently residing in the United States, many who have been legally living and working here for decades.
The decision affects about 49,100 Salvadorans living in California, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy institute.
“It’s horrible,” said Antelope resident Jose Lopez, who holds the status. Lopez has two American-born daughters ages 4 and 10 and runs his own housekeeping business that employs three others. In 2012, he purchased a home in the small town north of Sacramento.
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“I have made my life in this country,” said Lopez, who came to the U.S. 25 years ago at age 20. “We need to be recognized that we have contributed to this country.”
A humanitarian program, Temporary Protected Status allows the U.S. government to grant legal standing to people from specific countries designated as dangerous due to armed conflicts such as civil war, natural or environmental disasters or other extraordinary circumstances that make returning to those places a risk.
Like Lopez, many Salvadorans fled the country in the wake of a brutal civil war, while others came after a series of earthquakes in 2001. Lopez said he was kidnapped by guerrillas as a teenager and never got over his fear of further violence, prompting him to leave.
Monday’s announcement means Lopez and other Salvadorans under the status would be expected to leave the U.S. by Sept. 9, 2019 – or seek out one of a few alternative paths to legal status.
Lopez said he has been in contact with an immigration attorney, and is hopeful he will find a way to stay in the United States legally.
Veronica Lagunas, 39, a Salvadoran with protected status living near Los Angeles, said when she heard the announcement, she thought of her two children, ages 8 and 13.
“It’s the psychological impact on my children and what they have to go through now,” she said.
Lagunas said she works as a janitor in a commercial real estate building in downtown L.A. She came to the United States 16 years ago after her home was damaged in an earthquake and she was forced to drop out of university, where she was studying journalism. Her family originally came on a tourist visa, but later converted to TPS status.
Lagunas said going back to El Salvador is “not an option.”
“The one thing I do know for sure is I can’t be separated from my children,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s honestly unimaginable what I would do.”
Elected officials across the state condemned the action, citing both its impact on families and the economy.
“California’s senators should have been consulted before this decision was made and were not,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a statement. “This is yet another example of the Trump administration taking an action with significant consequences for California without making any attempt to understand the harm it would cause.”
Feinstein and others have introduced legislation that would help Temporary Protected Status holders from El Salvador and other countries gain permanent status, but there is little appetite in the Republican-held Congress to move it forward.
California has the largest Salvadoran population – 688,637 – of any state, according to the latest census figures. An estimated 9,953 Salvadorans live in Sacramento County, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the second largest ethnic group among Latinos in the county, behind only those with Mexican heritage. The are no local figures for how many of those Salvadorans hold protected status.
The average Salvadoran TPS holder in the United States has been here for 22 years, and more than 50,000 U.S.-born children in California have Salvadoran parents who hold the canceled status.
Losing California’s TPS holders would cost the state economy about $2.7 billion annually, the Center for American Progress report found.
Nearly 9,000 Salvadoran TPS holders have mortgages in the state.
“This is a very real thing for California, especially for folks that have been living here for decades and have established roots and have businesses and children,” said California Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, the only Salvadoran currently serving in the state legislature. “It’s another example of just how the Trump administration cares very little about immigrants and in this particular case the Latino community, and is a reflection of the Republican party.”
Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, speaking on behalf of the Latino Caucus of California Counties, said “the end of TPS for Salvadorans today is going to be devastating to thousands of families across California.”
The news of the cancellation of protected status for Salvadorans was not unexpected. In November, the Trump administration ended Temporary Protected Status for both Nicaraguans and Haitians.
The Department of Homeland Security said the program was being terminated for Salvadorans because the “substantial disruption of living conditions” following the earthquakes in 2001 no longer exists in El Salvador. Those conditions precipitated the granting of the status.
“Damaged schools and hospitals have been reconstructed and repaired,” a Homeland Security official said. “Homes have been rebuilt, and money has been provided for water and sanitation and to repair damaged roads and other infrastructure.”
Critics of status change challenged the assertion that El Salvador had recovered and didn’t pose a danger for those who may be forced to return.
“El Salvador is not stabilized,” said Carrillo, citing an ongoing drought, rampant gang violence and economic instability.
“A gallon of milk costs $5 dollars while people earn $200 a month,” Carillo said. “So the cost of living versus wages still makes it far from a stable place.”
Lagunas also said she felt fear at the thought of returning.
Because of “the violence going on there currently” and “the lack of economic opportunities ... it would be very difficult for me to be able to find employment,” she said.
Bee reporter Ryan Lillis contributed to this report.