Ever since the Trump Administration announced an 18-month timeline for ending the Temporary Protected Status of millions of Salvadorans who’d fled their country for the United States due to wars and natural disasters, Takoma Park immigration attorney Christina Wilkes’ office has become flooded with calls from many frightened people.
“There is a lot of fear. There is a lot of misinformation. A lot of folks are calling here to ask what to do,” said Wilkes. “A lot don’t have another avenue available to them [to enable them to remain legally in this country].”
Wilkes said she is advising those on TPS to renew their legal status so that they can remain here legally for the next 18 months. She also is telling them to remain calm, that “come next year, it’s not like immigration will deport them that day.”
The Immigration Act of 1990 – which Congress passed, and then-President George H.W. Bush signed in 1990 – gave the Attorney General authority to authorize Temporary Protected Status to immigrants in the United States who are temporarily unable to safely return to their home country because of ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions.
After the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service was reorganized into different agencies of the Department of Homeland Security by the 2002 Homeland Security Act – passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – the Attorney General’s authority passed to the Secretary of Homeland Security.
By 2017, the TPS program covered roughly 300,000 people from 10 countries, namely El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Liberia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The largest group of TPS recipients is from El Salvador, numbering around 263,280, out of which 40,000 – the largest concentration of Salvadorans in any place in the US – make up the largest single minority group in Montgomery County. The County has even had a Sister City relationship with Morzan, a rural town in El Salvador, since 2011.
However, the Trump administration announced that protections for all those Salvadorans, as well as the 45,000 Haitians residing in the United States under TPS, will end in 2019, and is expected to announce a timeline for ending protections for the 80,000 Hondurans living under TPS sometime in March.
Critics of the Trump administration’s decision suggest it can be explained by the President’s racial animus against countries in Africa and Latin America, and the President appeared to confirm such suggestions last week when, during a meeting on a possible deal to provide legal status to children brought to the country illegally, he asked why the United States needs to accept people from “shithole” countries and suggested the U.S. take in more immigrants from majority-white countries such as Norway.
Wilkes explained that deportation proceedings can begin once TPS has ended and that some Salvadorans may be fortunate enough to obtain a green card or, if they have children who are 21 or older, those children can petition to have their parents remain here.
But 18th District Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez (D) doesn’t believe most of the TPS recipients would return to her native land where jobs are few and poverty is rampant.
“There [still] is the violence caused by the gangs” that caused many Salvadorans to flee their homes, said Gutierrez, who spent most of the first five years of her life in El Salvador and still visits three times a year.
Gutierrez believes many former TPS recipients will choose to remain in the U.S. illegally, even at great risk to their jobs and homes. “If push comes to shove, and if the 18 months are up, people simply will join the 11 million [undocumented immigrants living in the United States], she said.
But she remains grateful that the recipients have a year and a half and is hopeful that in that time, Congress will pass a law granting them permanent residence before the deadline comes to pass.
Meanwhile, “almost everyone who is an immigrant is looking at their life in a different way,” Gutierrez said.
These are people who “have bought houses. They have bought cars. Many have their own business,” she said.
Referring to Trump’s racist language, Gutierrez was defiant.
“I am proud to be from El Salvador, a ‘shithole’ country as far as Trump is concerned,” she said. “We stand proud.”
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) called the announcement that DHS would end TPS for residents of El Salvador “unfortunate.”
“The action threatens to tear apart communities and families who have put down strong roots here,” Leggett said in a statement.
Claudia Canales, the County’s Latino Liaison, said that the County along with some non-profits will spend the next 18 months assisting those on TPS to renew their applications and will also hold information sessions so no one will be taken in by scam artists who prey on those trying to work within a system they do not understand.
“People are scared. Parents don’t know if they want to take their kids to school,” Canales said.
Diane Vu, who works in the County’s Office of Community Partnerships especially in the area of legal immigration services, said the County would work with the Salvadorans who fled their country, including the unaccompanied minors who came to reunite with their families as conditions in their country deteriorated.
Some adults came to the County 20 years ago and since then have purchased homes, own businesses and pay taxes, she said, noting that about 20 percent of them are working in construction. They have remained in part because conditions in El Salvador, Central America’s smallest and most densely-populated country, are still very bad, she said.
Under the County’s Sister City program, Montgomery County’s Habitat for Humanity has committed to building 45 homes and rehabilitating 45 existing homes in Morazan.
The Sister Cities committee, in partnership with the Association for the Educational Development for El Salvador, has sent medical equipment and educational supplies to Morazan costing $22,500.