The announcement Monday that the U.S. plans to end temporary protections for Salvadorans residing in the U.S. filled many Savladoran families with anxiety, raising the possibility they will be forced to abandon their roots in the country and return to a homeland they haven’t known for years, even decades.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen gave Salvadorans with temporary protected status until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the United States or face deportation.
The decision, while not surprising, was a severe blow to Salvadorans in New York, Houston, Washington and other major cities that have welcomed them since at least the 1980s.
Orlando Zepeda, who came to the U.S. in 1984 fleeing civil war in El Salvador, said the lack of surprise does not ease the sting for the 51-year-old Los Angeles-area man who works in building maintenance and has two American-born children.
"It's sad, because it's the same story of family separation from that time, and now history is repeating itself with my children," Zepeda said.
In September 2016, the Obama administration extended protections for 18 months, saying El Salvador suffered lingering harm from the 2001 earthquakes that killed more than 1,000 people and would be unable to absorb such a large wave of people returning.
But Nielsen said Monday that earthquake damage didn’t justify another temporary extension and that El Salvador has received enough international aid to have mostly rebuilt its infrastructure.
Guillermo Mendoza, who came to the United States in 2000 when he was 19, was anguished about what to do with his wife and two children, who are U.S. citizens.
"What do I do? Do I leave the country and leave them here? That is a tough decision," said Mendoza, a safety manager at Shapiro & Duncan, a mechanical contractor company in Rockville, Maryland, near Washington.
Many immigrants hope Congress can deliver a long-term reprieve by September 2019. If that fails, they face a grim choice: return to El Salvador voluntarily or live in the U.S. illegally under an administration that has dramatically increased deportation arrests.
A small crowd gathered outside the White House Monday, NBC News reported, to protest the planned end to protections, chanting “Donald Trump, shame on you,” and “Congress, fix it now.”
Maryland resident Jose Monge, who has lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, said he fears for the future of his family, including his two sons who are 10 and 14.
"I can’t take them back to my country, because there’s no future in my country for them," he told NBC Washington.
Democratic leaders and immigrant advocacy groups sharply criticized the move. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called it "a heartbreaking blow to nearly a quarter of a million hard-working Salvadorans who are American in every way." Rep. Bennie Thompson, ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said it was "just the latest in a string of heartless, xenophobic actions from the Trump administration."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called it "heartbreaking" and said "many families will be devastated."
However, groups advocating immigration restrictions called it an important step for the humanitarian program's credibility.
"The past practice of allowing foreign nationals to remain in the United States long after an initial emergency in their home countries has ended has undermined the integrity of the program and essentially made the 'temporary' protected status a front operation for backdoor permanent immigration," said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA.
The action presents a serious challenge for El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people whose economy counts on money sent by wage earners in the U.S. Over the past decade, growing numbers of Salvadorans — many coming as families or unaccompanied children — have entered the United States illegally through Mexico, fleeing violence and poverty.
The 18-month delay was small comfort for Teresa Salmerón, a Salvadoran woman who has relatives working in the United States.
"What are they going to do here? There is no work here," she said. "I live on the money they send home."
The U.S. created temporary protected status in 1990 to provide safe havens for people from countries affected by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, war and other disasters. It currently shields people from 10 countries, more than half from El Salvador.
The benefit, which includes work authorization, can be renewed up to 18 months at a time by the Homeland Security secretary.
Cristian Chavez Guevara, a 37-year-old Salvadoran immigrant in Houston who is raising two American stepchildren and a young cousin, said the decision would tear apart his family. He was unsure what to do.
"I have been building dreams for the future and raising hope for a better future not just for me but for my family," he said. "All of that came to a halt."
In November, Nielsen's predecessor, acting Secretary Elaine Duke, ended the protection for Haitians, requiring them to leave or adjust their legal status by July 22, 2019, and for Nicaraguans, giving them until Jan. 5, 2019. She delayed a decision affecting Hondurans, leaving that decision to Nielsen.
Last year, the Trump administration extended status for South Sudan and ended it for Sudan. Other countries covered are Nepal, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.