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Parents Consider Their Options While Trump Rips Away Immigrants’ Legal Protections (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

The Trump administration could end Temporary Protected Status for people from El Salvador, as it has done for people from other countries, tearing apart families.

UPDATE, January 8, 10:27 a.m.: The Department of Homeland Security on Monday announced that Temporary Protected Status would not be extended for El Salvador. “In 18 months, approximately 200,000 Salvadoran TPS holders … will be out of status and subject to deportation,” according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

As news has rolled in about the end of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from various countries, Jorge and Araceli Velasquez say they have been “very surprised” by the Trump administration’s attacks on the program.

They had anticipated President Trump would follow through on his promises to target undocumented people, not those in the United States under TPS, a humanitarian initiative.

Araceli, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, made contingency plans immediately after Trump was elected, reaching out to organizations and gathering resources should she be targeted by the government of a virulently anti-immigration president. She assumed her husband, a TPS recipient also from El Salvador, could care for their children in the United States if she were deported. TPS, a program intended to help those who have suffered catastrophic danger in their countries of origin, seemed like a non-issue. Or so they thought.

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There are hints that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen won’t extend TPS for people from El Salvador. Nielsen in an interview with the Associated Press said she spoke with El Salvador’s top diplomats about how the return of Salvadoran immigrants would be carried out and “expressed wariness of temporary extensions.”

“Getting them to a permanent solution is a much better plan than having them live six months, to 12 months to 18 months,” Nielsen said in the interview

Salvadorans became the largest immigrant group with the designation after being granted TPS in 2001 when the country was devastated by earthquakes. Their status is set to expire in March without an extension. Nielsen has until January 8 to make her announcement.

It appears as if the Trump administration is moving to end the TPS program entirely, as Rewire reportedHaitian and Nicaraguan immigrants were told in December that their TPS will end in 2019. Honduran immigrants received a short extension pending further revision of their status until July. Guinean, Liberian, and immigrants from Sierra Leon lost the status in May. Sudanese immigrants will lose TPS in November.

The Trump administration’s position has been that the conditions for which TPS was originally granted no longer exist in these countries, so the temporary status must end. But Amanda Baran told Rewire in November that the conditions for which the status was originally given still exist in many—if not all—of the countries in which TPS is being ended. 

Citing Nicaragua as an example, Baran, a TPS expert with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said the conditions outlined in the federal register as the reason for extending TPS for Nicaragua in 2016 still exist, and there have been “subsequent environmental disasters that have exacerbated the conditions of Hurricane Mitch.”

El Salvador, one of three countries that form what’s referred to as the deadly Northern Triangle, continues to be plagued by “endemic levels of crime and violence,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization.

“In 2015, El Salvador’s murder rate increased dramatically, reaching a level of violence not seen since the end of the country’s civil war,” WOLA reported. “The 70 percent increase in the homicide rate over 2014 followed the unraveling of a truce between rival gangs and an aggressive crackdown by security forces that has spurred concerns about extrajudicial executions and other human rights abuses.”  The murder rate decreased after March 2017, but the National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) registered 5,728 murders in the country in 2016, making it the second consecutive year with more than 5,000 recorded murders in El Salvador’s recent history.

To extend TPS, Baran explained, the conditions in the country must be the same as when the status was first granted. TPS is granted for three scenarios, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): ongoing armed conflict, environment disasters or epidemics, or other “extraordinary and temporary conditions.”

While the Trump administration may argue that the conditions in El Salvador for which TPS was designated no longer exist, they could re-designate the country, Baran told Rewire.

“If this administration truly cared to continue TPS for a place like El Salvador, a country with extreme violence, gang warfare, and political instability, they could simply re-designate El Salvador for TPS on new grounds because of armed conflict in the country.”

Gang violence has made El Salvador especially dangerous for children and young adults, which is a primary concern for Jorge Velasquez, who now fears having to return to El Salvador with his three, young U.S. citizen sons. Velasquez told Rewire that it’s important for people to understand that Trump’s recent talking points about the transnational gang MS-13 and the violence it has caused in the U.S. is not a problem that started in El Salvador, but rather a direct result of U.S. foreign policy.

The gang was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, primarily by Salvadoran immigrants who fled their country’s brutal civil war, a war in which the United States provided hundreds of millions in economic and military aid to the country’s dictatorship and trained death squads. An estimated 75,000 people lost their lives during the war. U.S. immigration policy lead to the deportation of these Salvadoran immigrants, which in part, allowed MS-13 to spread.

Velasquez says he saw these dynamics play out firsthand. He was a child during the civil war and, fearing for his life as a young man, he fled the violence in El Salvador, arriving in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.

“When I first came to the U.S., this trend was just beginning,” Velasquez told Rewire with the help of an interpreter. “I saw how many [Salvadoran] youth involved in gangs were warehoused by the city or county and then deported back to El Salvador. That’s when I started hearing from my family back home about gangs in El Salvador. We saw the impact right away.”

Velasquez now lives in Denver, and like many mixed-status families, his is being attacked from all sides. Araceli also fled violence in El Salvador. Under the Obama administration, she was allowed to remain in the United States as long as she attended regularly-scheduled check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She had no criminal record and was not a priority for deportation, until Trump took office. Araceli became another victim of the Trump administration’s silent raids, told she would have to return to El Salvador on her own or be deported. She has been in sanctuary in a Denver church for more than four months.

If TPS ends for El Salvador, Jorge Velasquez, the family’s sole source of income, will not be able to legally work in the United States. The couple is unsure if they will both be deported, forcing them to make a hard decision regarding their three boys: Do they leave their children behind in the United States with people they don’t know, or take them to El Salvador, where they could be subjected to gang violence?

This is a conundrum that will now be faced by many. The Center for Migration Studies reported that Salvadoran TPS holders are parents to an estimated 192,000 U.S.-citizen children. Velasquez said that many Americans don’t seem to understand how deeply gangs have inserted themselves in all levels of society in El Salvador.

“No one can be left in peace. If you are a business owner, you have to pay gangs ‘rent’ or ‘protection’ just to be left alone to operate your business, otherwise they will kill your family to scare you into paying. Gangs try to recruit young boys on the street and if they say no, they kill them or their families. Nobody wants to be involved with gangs, but if you are not, you risk death for yourself or your family,” Velasquez said.

This isn’t just a problem in one part of El Salvador, but rather a systematic, country-wide issue. WOLA’s director for Mexico and migrant rights, Maureen Meyer, told Rewire that in El Salvador, which is very small, gangs have penetrated every part of the country. Simply moving to another town isn’t helpful.

“Those seeking protection in the U.S. already tried moving to different parts of their country and you know what? They were persecuted there too. It’s not just one threat from one gang member. We’re talking about layers of impenetrable violence and a government that is failing to protect its people or address the problem,” Meyer said.

This environment is why Velasquez sees DHS’ decisionand the Trump administration’s simplistic approach to simply deporting MS-13 membersas “short-sighted.”

“Deportation is what started this gang problem that Trump talks about. When they deport gang members to El Salvador, they do not get sent to prison there or rehabilitation. They are set down in the middle of nowhere with no resources but their gang connections,” Velasquez said. “And he talks about all of us like we are the same and we will be treated the same. It is these policies that make us fearful for our children in that environment if we are deported. There has been no investment in resources [in El Salvador] to cut down on delinquency, to increase education, nothing.”

This was confirmed by Meyer, who told Rewire that the lack of resources makes children an easy target for gang recruitment. And because Trump, like many administrations before his, solely focuses on immigration enforcement rather than intervention, this dynamic will continue.

“Trump routinely conflates those fleeing violence and persecution in El Salvador with those who are violent gang members. There’s a lot lacking in his discourse, but what really stands out to me is that there seems to be no understanding that those who have come from Central America are asylum seekers. Trump sees them as people not deserving of international protection,” Meyer said. “El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, we’re talking the kind of numbers you would usually see for countries at war. This rhetoric that simplifies everyone as a person lying about seeking asylum or as a ‘criminal’ is a huge disserve and hinders any ability to give Americans a broader understanding of these populations of people we should be seeking to protect.”

Araceli told Rewire that for many in her community, there is a mounting sense of fear, especially as more and more parents are faced with heartbreaking decisions regarding the future of their American citizen children.

“I feel attacked, and I feel a lot of frustration. We’re getting ready to submit a new packet in my case in January or February and now I’m wondering: Will I be able to leave sanctuary when Jorge has to enter it? My work has been in the home with our three small kids. Jorge sustains all of us with his income. If he is targeted for deportation, how will we survive as a family?” Araceli said. “When it was just me, I often thought if they decided to deport me, at least the kids would be safe with Jorge in the U.S. Now both of us are being targeted, and my heart is breaking.”

Araceli said that even though her children are in sanctuary, they are happy because they are with their parents. Even the idea of them being separated as a family is “agonizing,” she said, and she spends a lot of time thinking about the long-term impact this will have on children living with the anxiety of their parents’ possible deportation or even worse: the reality of it.

“I’ve always felt some truth in idea that this country welcomes immigrants,” Jorge Velasquez said. “I’m not so sure about that anymore. It seems that welcome has been revoked. It’s unfortunate because I don’t believe a majority of U.S. citizens support this poor treatment of immigrants. Those that I know believe that they have a fair system that welcomes immigrants, but the government no longer reflects that sentiment.”

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