Let me introduce you to a few people I recently met while on a magazine assignment. They are our neighbors, ordinary Americans in their aspirations and attitudes, whose lives are suddenly, needlessly, being torn apart by the United States government.
First, there are the Velascos, in the suburban town of Brentwood, near Oakland. Enrique is a landmarks restoration specialist; Vanessa, who studied business in college in San Salvador, has, in recent years home-schooled her two daughters. Arianna is 17, and recently applied to UC Berkeley. Her young sister, Dayana, is just entering adolescence. Their 4-year-old brother Andres is about to start kindergarten.
Then there’s Victor Diaz, a middle-aged grandfather in San Pablo, who has worked as a carpenter, a truck repairman, a driver. On his bedroom wall are hung dozens of family photos, including a collage of images lovingly put together by one of his children to celebrate Father’s Day.
There’s Maribel Pacheco, in San Diego, whose eyes gleam as she talks about her three kids, one studying to become a doctor, another a nurse, and a third about to enter the U.S. Coast Guard.
There’s Sonia Paz, a housecleaner and babysitter who explains how she has bought herself a burial plot in Los Angeles, on a monthly installment plan, so that her children won’t be burdened with that cost when she dies.
All are either Salvadoran or Honduran, and all fled starvation, gangs, torture, death squads, or, simply, relentless poverty. All have lived here for decades, for most of that time under a program begun in 1990 known as “Temporary Protected Status.” All have worked hard, paid taxes, raised families.
TPS was intended to provide temporary rights of residency to people who had entered the country illegally, fleeing civil wars, epidemics, and other natural and economic disasters. In some cases, TPS status was granted to countries for a couple of years, and then, when conditions stabilized, the recipients were returned to their homelands. But in the case of El Salvador (granted TPS in 2001), Honduras (granted in 1998), Nicaragua, and Haiti, conditions remained so desperate that the status was routinely extended.
Today, roughly 400,000 people are covered by TPS, with most from El Salvador and Honduras, and a disproportionate number living here in California. They have been here for decades; have U.S.-citizen children; are deeply embedded in their local communities; have invested in businesses and in furthering their education. And they have repeatedly passed criminal background checks, since their renewed status is contingent on their maintaining a clean record.
Because their “temporary” status has, in effect, by default become all-but-permanent, they think of themselves, and their communities think of them, as entirely American – as American as any others in this land of immigrants. Almost certainly, you know some of these men and women; you have shopped in their stores, hired them to fix your plumbing or work in your yard, exchanged pleasantries in line at the supermarket, broken bread with them at restaurants, worshiped with them at church, sat next to them at sports events. Almost certainly your children go to school with their children.
Now they are in the Trump administration’s sadistic sights.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was ending the status for Haitians and Nicaraguans. At a stroke, more than 50,000 people were rendered illegal. DHS begrudgingly renewed the status for Hondurans until July – but made it clear it would then most likely not be extended. Finally, on Monday, DHS announced that as of September 2019 the nearly 200,000 El Salvadorans here under TPS – men and women whose remittances back to their home country contribute 20 percent of El Salvador’s GDP – would be subject to deportation.
“We were allowed to be here legally. With all that ‘legally’ implies. And suddenly it’s ‘pack and leave,’” Vanessa Velasco sadly told me, as she ponders taking her two youngest children to live in an impoverished, violent country they have never seen, and leaving her 17-year-old here to try to navigate her student years alone. As she ponders selling the dream home they have scrimped and saved to pay the mortgage on. As she ponders cashing out her retirement account and trying to start again in a country from which she fled 20 years ago.
“The impact of leaving kids here alone is hard. Who’s going to provide for them? Who will be their support when they need emotional support?”
To call this policy reckless is to miss its moral magnitude. The TPS population has nearly 200,000 U.S.-citizen children. Each of those children now faces upended lives – either losing parents, who have played by the rules for decades, to deportation; or leaving the U.S. with their parents, losing their safety, their dreams and the only homes they have ever known.
When you meet these families face to face, as I did while reporting on this issue for The Nation, it is impossible not to realize that this is happening to normal people, with the same hopes and fears you and I have. Imagine how you would feel if you had to choose between leaving your children or taking them to a place you knew to be deadly? This is one reason I wanted you to meet them.
The other reason is so that – if you don’t raise holy hell over the coming months to fight for these neighbors of ours – years down the road, when your children and your grandchildren ask you why you stood silently by as these atrocious events unfolded, you cannot hide behind ignorance and say “I didn’t know.”
Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.