A blow to Salvadorans — and the Massachusetts economy

A young girl looked on as immigrants and activists protested Tuesday near the White House in the wake of the DHS decision.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
A young girl looked on as immigrants and activists protested Tuesday near the White House in the wake of the DHS decision.

FOR THE PAST 16 years, Juana Portillo has worked for C&W Services, a Massport contractor, cleaning terminal B at Logan. Portillo and her husband, a maintenance worker at a building in downtown Boston, bought a home in Chelsea two years ago and have five American-born kids. Originally from El Salvador, Portillo and her husband are law-abiding, tax-paying residents of Massachusetts. Their kids attend the Chelsea public schools and are American in every sense.

Yet President Trump intends to throw workers like Portillo and her husband out of the country, a callous move that will also turn their children into collateral damage. On Monday, the US Department of Homeland Security announced the termination of the temporary protected status for El Salvador, a program that has allowed more than 200,000 immigrants like Portillo and her husband to legally live and work in the US. The termination is effective Sept. 9, 2019, meaning they have 18 months to leave or face deportation.

Beyond the cruelty of turning our backs on longstanding vetted immigrants and sending them to a country that cannot absorb them, ending protected status for citizens of El Salvador is a self-inflicting wound to the American economy.


The protections were granted to Salvadorans for the first time in 2001, after a series of earthquakes killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 1 million. The program has been reauthorized 11 times after different administrations have reached the same conclusion: Extraordinary conditions — poverty, governance challenges, extreme violence — make it unlikely the Central American country could adequately handle the return of its nationals.

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That’s still true. Conditions in El Salvador remain dire. Trump’s own State Department issued an advisory warning American travelers of El Salvador’s “high rates of crime and violence,” adding that gang activity is widespread. “El Salvador has one of the highest homicide levels in the world.”

Meanwhile, the economic impact of the roughly 6,000 Salvadorans with protected status who live in Massachusetts is significant. About $400 million would be lost from state’s annual GDP if they were to leave, according to a Center for American Progress study. They work in construction, the restaurant industry, as janitors, and in maintenance — like Portillo and her husband. Portillo’s union, 32BJ SEIU, represents 18,000 property service workers in the Greater Boston area. A spokeswoman for the union says that at least 1,000 of their members are Salvadorans with protected status.

There’s another universe of people affected: an estimated 190,000 US-born children of Salvadoran parents in the country on protected status.

“I don’t plan on abandoning my kids here if the time comes for us to leave,” said Portillo. “But it’s tragic to take them to a country they don’t belong and know nothing about. Our lives are . . . here. There is no future there for us.”


Ten-year-old Gabriela Martinez feels the same. She’s a US citizen and lives with her mom, Carolina Mata, and her teenage brother in Leominster. Mata has worked in the same plastics factory in Leominster for almost 17 years. The Trump administration’s decision would be dire for Mata and her daughter. “Life in El Salvador is bad,” Martinez said. “There are a lot of gangs that threaten people.”

A lot can happen in 18 months, and Congress could extend the protections to save children like Martinez and families like Portillo’s. The humanitarian case is clear. It is an advocacy fight that could use the voice of the local business community. The cleaning companies and factories and other employers that have benefited from the labor of Salvadoran workers should speak up for them and their families now.