My parents came to the United States from El Salvador after the Civil War left their home in shambles. Dead bodies littered the streets, work was nonexistent, and human rights were a thing of the past. War throughout Central America led the U.S. Congress to pass the 1980 Refugee Act, and almost one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans are estimated to have made the U.S. home as a result.
After 2001, another influx of Salvadorans settled down in the U.S. Except that wasn’t fueled by war, but by two earthquakes. Those quakes caused massive mudslides and left more than 1,200 people dead and 164,000 houses uninhabitable. Now, President Donald Trump is asking almost 200,000 Salvadoran families who still require Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to live here legally to leave and return to a country currently plagued by mass gang violence and a failing government.
These are Salvadorans who were already residing in the U.S. during the earthquakes. This protection allowed them to stay longer because El Salvador wasn’t equipped to handle their return.
The Department of Homeland Security released an official statement Monday stating that the Temporary Protected Status of these families will end in just 18 months, on September 19, 2019. At that point, they have to return to El Salvador or have figured out a way to stay legally. Or they could stay illegally, risking deportation and likely losing their livelihood. The Salvadoran government has welcomed this decision by the White House, noting that those who return will benefit the nation’s economy and labor force, according to the Salvadoran consulate.
Kevin Johnson, who is the dean at the law school at University of California, Davis, told Earther that this move is comparable to the Trump administration’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provided a legal status for people who migrated illegally to the U.S. as children. He worries what world these current U.S. residents will be returning to.
“It is not clear that TPS recipients who lose TPS will be able to return to safety,” Johnson wrote to Earther, in an email.
The U.S. government says the country’s conditions have improved, citing repaired schools, hospitals, and roads. Since the designation was just temporary, the government wants it over. Is it that simple, though?
About 40 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. This includes the 10 percent who live in extreme poverty. Even 17 years after those earthquakes, the country remains one of the deadliest in the world. In addition to high crime rates, it has seen extreme drought, deadly floods, and dangerous levels of deforestation that are leaving indigenous communities vulnerable. With climate change, the country—no larger than the state of New Jersey—is expected to see floods and droughts increase, threatening its agriculture and, thus, its workers.
“Each [natural disaster] brings a new layer of challenges as the country is small and its economy still weak,” said Cecilia Menjívar, who co-directs the Center for Migration Research, to Earther in an email. “So people do what they can, including migrate.”
Families that were in the U.S. safely before the 2001 quakes benefited tremendously from the temporary status granted to them by former President George W. Bush, according to a report out last year from the Center for Migration Research, which Menjívar authored. She doesn’t think many will leave it all behind.
Many individuals decided to continue their education here in the U.S. after receiving their legal status, something that they were unable to do in their country of origin: Almost 10 percent finished high school and obtained a GED. More than 36 percent enrolled in English language courses. About a third own a home, and another 77 percent of TPS holders from El Salvador and Honduras send money back home.
Most importantly, perhaps, about two-thirds have at least one child born in the U.S. Those children would be allowed to stay, but parents would face a dilemma of having to tear their families apart or take their children to El Salvador. Menjívar doesn’t expect parents to leave their children behind, or to take them to a dangerous country they don’t know.
Despite all this, the administration is determined to try and send them back—and it comes as no surprise. Just last week, in anticipation of this, a coalition of cities and counties, including New York City and Houston, asked the federal government to extend this protection, which was due for renewal Monday when it was killed.
In November, the administration announced a similar move against Haitian refugees who were impacted by the 2010 earthquake that left more than 1.5 million people displaced. The status of people from many other, including Honduras, Nepa, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan, is undergoing review this year, according to reporting by The Washington Post. While some of these residents received protected status over natural disasters (like Haiti and El Salvador), others did following a civil war.
In El Salvador, the Civil War is now over, but I can’t help but wonder, “What if the U.S. government decided it was time my parents go back?” They were never here on TPS and gained a permanent status after a long, legal journey, but still. What if they had been?
They’d be thousands of miles away from me and in a place they haven’t lived in since the late ’80s. My mom has always dreamt of returning home—but on her terms, when she’s ready, and when her country is, too.
This darkness can prove deadly, in the form of poverty or violence. For many, a one-way ticket to El Salvador could very well be a death sentence.