Since word started spreading about the possibility of Salvadorans losing a form of protected status, Juan Pineda has grappled with a hard question:
If he had to leave the country, would he take his two U.S.-born children with him to one of the most violent nations in the Western Hemisphere, or leave them behind in Tucson to be raised by relatives?
“This is a difficult situation for so many,” said the single father from his Tucson home. “People need to picture themselves in our shoes, to imagine what it’s like leaving everything you have.”
About 200,000 Salvadorans nationwide, including 1,800 in Arizona, have found themselves facing similar dilemmas following the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to review Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Central Americans earlier this year.
The program, founded in 1990 under the Bush administration, doesn’t give recipients permanent legal status, but allows people to live and work in the United States while conditions in their home countries are considered unstable due to armed conflicts or natural disasters.
In the last few months, DHS ended the designation for more than 2,500 Nicaraguans and for 59,000 Haitians, while postponing the final decision for Hondurans. The fate of Salvadorans is expected to be known in early January.
As they wait to hear what the future will hold for themselves and their families, Salvadoran groups in Arizona are uniting to hold rallies, arrange trips to Washington, D.C., and El Salvador, and working with the Salvadoran Consulate and local immigration lawyers in an attempt to persuade lawmakers not to take away the status that they say has given them a better life.
The uncertainty, said Pineda, “affects every aspect of your life.” He’s had the temporary protection since 2001, when it first became available to Salvadorans, following a series of earthquakes in their native country. He is also a member of the Tucson chapter of Salvavision and is working with the group to help organize future fundraising and awareness events about the temporary humanitarian relief.
They are also going straight to federal representatives. In October, Tucson-based Consul General German Alvarez Oviedo, along with members the charity group Salvavision Rescue, raised funds to take Arizona state Sen. Steve Montenegro to El Salvador, where he toured hospitals, schools and shelters. The Republican had immigrated from the country himself when he was 4 years old.
“We are hopeful that after seeing the country firsthand, he will support our efforts,” Alvarez said. Politicians from El Salvador are due to visit with Arizona representatives this month to make arguments for a TPS extension. “We’re trying to show that the emotional and economic effects (of returning to El Salvador) would be devastating for these people. They have companies, businesses — they are not a burden to the United States.”
Aside from paying for work permits, holding multiple jobs and paying up to thousands of dollars in taxes every year, TPS holders have to pay around $500 every 18 months to renew their status, Pineda said. They also are ineligible for benefits such as food stamps, and cannot hold the status if they have a criminal background.
“People have to understand that we’re not harming this country,” said the business owner, who provides jobs to several people. “We’re responsible for ourselves.”
While the DHS’ decision this fall marks the first time a Central American country has lost its TPS, it is not the first time an administration has revoked the status for a certain nation. The African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone lost their status in April after having held it for two years, according to United States Citizen and Immigration Services. In 2009, the Obama administration canceled the status for immigrants from Burundi after 12 years. Other countries also lost their TPS during the Bush and Clinton administrations.
But unlike immigrants from those countries, many Salvadorans — the largest group of TPS recipients — have held the status for most of their lives. They have married U.S. citizens, raised U.S.–born children, bought homes and established businesses. This makes ending the program for them all the more complicated from a legal perspective, said Tucson-based immigration attorney Claudia Arevalo.
“There aren’t too many options,” she said. Because many Salvadoran beneficiaries entered the country without documentation before they were granted TPS, many of them are ineligible to adjust their status even if they are married to a U.S. citizen.
But there are past court cases in which a TPS holder was granted residency, which might give hope for others, Arevalo said. “What we want to do is try to find ways to legalize these people, before we have large numbers in deportation proceedings because they’ll be out of status. ”
For Karina Rodriguez, a member of Salvadorans United in Phoenix, a legal path to residency would allow her to raise her family in the only country she knows. She moved to the U.S. in 1997 when she was 3 years old and remembers nothing of her early life in El Salvador. Like Pineda, she is a working single parent to two children; hers are ages 2 and 4.
“I don’t know if I’d take them with me or what would happen,” she said as she waited her turn one recent afternoon to speak with Arevalo, who traveled from Tucson to offer pro-bono consultations for TPS holders.
Many people with TPS will probably opt to stay in the U.S. without documents, Rodriguez said, rather than leave their families behind or take them back to a country where gangs have driven violent crime to extremely high levels.
The homicide rate for 2015 was 109 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to data from the World Bank — this in a country about the size of New Jersey. In comparison, the homicide rate for the United States in the same year was about 5 per 100,000 inhabitants.
“I know it’s unsafe there, there are murders and kidnappings,” Rodriguez said, twisting her hands together. “But (my children) are all I have.”
For those who have made lives in the United States, there is an added risk of returning to El Salvador, Arevalo said.
“It makes them a target for the maras (gang members,)” she said. “They’ll see that they dress and act differently, they’ll know that they have family in the United States and will assume that these are people with money who they can kidnap or exploit.”
For Pineda, the well-being of his children is the most important thing. He finds it difficult to imagine what will happen to them, or to his business, if he has to leave the country he has called home for so long, he said.
“Can I make a bagel?” his 10-year-old daughter asks as she walks into the kitchen.
Pineda waits until she leaves the room, snack in hand, to continue talking.
For the moment, he’s trying to keep all these thoughts to himself.
“If I told them I might have to go, they’d ask, ‘What about us?’” he said. “How do you explain this situation to a child?”