LYNN — When powerful earthquakes rocked El Salvador in 2001, the US government told Carlos Ramos it was unsafe to go home. Officials gave him and thousands of other immigrants work permits, and a reason to stay in America by renewing those permits year after year.
Now the same federal agency that gave Ramos permission to stay is planning to deport his teenage son.
The boy, also named Carlos, was caught crossing the southern border after fleeing gang violence in El Salvador in 2012, too late to apply for the same permit that federal officials granted to his parents. He is the only family member here without permission, but immigration officials have repeatedly refused to halt his deportation.
“It’s a death sentence,” his father said.
In the chaotic aftermath of last summer’s border crisis, when thousands of minors from crime-ridden Central American nations streamed into the United States, lawyers are discovering a bizarre irony in the immigration system: the Obama administration is deporting the children of adults it has allowed to remain in the United States.
“There’s no angle you could look at this situation from and have it make any sense,” said the Ramos family’s lawyer, Kira Gagarin of Framingham.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on Carlos’s case, citing privacy concerns, but they said their priorities for deportation include foreigners who recently crossed the US borders illegally, such as the minors.
“Decisions are based on the merits of each case, the factual information provided to the agency, and the totality of the circumstances,” said ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls.
Carlos’s parents are here legally under a 1990 law that allows the Homeland Security secretary to grant foreigners temporary permission to live and work in the United States if their homelands are engulfed in a crisis such as war or natural disaster. Thousands of immigrants from eight nations have this permission, referred to as “temporary protected status,” or TPS. Among the countries are Honduras and El Salvador, the homelands of thousands of children who crossed the border without their parents since 2012.
The temporary status allows immigrants to stay in the United States, but it does not authorize them to bring their children here.
Federal officials say they are not tracking how many newly arrived minors have a parent or guardian with temporary protected status, but researchers say thousands of youths could potentially be in that situation. Lawyers and advocates say such cases have surfaced in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the nation.
Critics of existing immigration policy fault the US government for extending the permission to immigrants long after their homelands’ initial crisis has passed. Usually the government grants the permission for 18 months, but often renews it, saying the nations are still recovering.
“What that does is really expose the falsity of TPS,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research organization that favors limits on immigration. “People who get TPS aren’t sent back.”
At first, receiving the temporary permission is a relief for immigrants, especially those here illegally, and most are eager to pay the $465 fee to renew it. But advocates for immigrants say the temporary protection should become permanent, because prolonging it strains families who pay taxes and follow the rules.
More than 260,000 people from El Salvador and Honduras had TPS as of July, federal officials said, and roughly half the 95,000 unaccompanied minors since 2012 hail from those countries. Most are teenage boys like Carlos, potentially old enough to have had a parent with TPS.
“I think thousands is a totally realistic guess,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the US immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington. “The TPS population is here lawfully, but they’re unable to bring their families, and many of them have been here lawfully now for at least 13 or 15 years, depending on the country. That’s a long time to be separated from your family.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency that cares for the children after they are detained, said 85 percent of the recently arrived minors have been released to a parent or relative in the United States, including 989 in Massachusetts as of July 31.
In El Salvador, young Carlos spent most of his life without his parents.
His father, Carlos Ramos, left in 1999, then a skinny, 25-year-old truck driver earning a few dollars a day in Sonsonate, in western El Salvador. Ramos said he wrestled with the decision to cross the border illegally. He had left high school to work and he wanted more for Carlos, then 3.
A year later, Carlos’s mother, Francisca Alvarado, followed him to Massachusetts, unable to find a job in El Salvador with her teaching degree. She left Carlos with her parents, but could not bring herself to say goodbye. She gave him a toy car and told him she was going to the city.
“She didn’t come back,” Carlos, now 17, said in an interview with his family in Lynn. The slim soccer player towers over both his parents.
Beside him on the couch, his mother started to cry.
“I thought that we would come back for him,” Alvarado said, “if we didn’t send for him.”
Every year raised their hopes for a permanent reunion. Immigration proposals, favoring citizenship for immigrants, flared up in Congress, then fizzled out. In El Salvador, Carlos applied for a visa and was turned down.
In America, the couple had three more sons — all US citizens — and bought a white house with a primrose garden on a cul-de-sac in Lynn. Ramos works as a truck driver; Alvarado makes sandwiches in a restaurant near the Boston immigration court. Every 18 months, they renew their temporary permits.
Alvarado visited Carlos several times in El Salvador, and brought a computer in 2012 so he could meet his father for the first time via Skype. During her visits, she noticed Carlos was increasingly afraid to go outside.
About four years ago, gang members allegedly killed a player on Carlos’s soccer team, which quickly disbanded. Around the same time, Carlos was playing in the street when a black sports car lurched to a stop and let out two young women bleeding from stab wounds.
Over his parents’ objections, Carlos decided to leave in 2012. A State Department report compared the murder rates that year for El Salvador and Massachusetts, two areas of similar size. Massachusetts had 2.6 murders for every 100,000 people; El Salvador had 69.
“I came for my future,” said Carlos, who left when he was 15. He turns 18 this month. “I want a future. I want to study.”
Since Carlos arrived, he has aspired to be a model student at a city high school, assembling awards he plans to show the judge at his deportation hearing next year. He earns A’s on his report card and dreams of studying engineering in college.
But his parents and lawyer are worried. Gagarin said she is bewildered that ICE rejected Carlos’s case, despite a 2011 agency memo that authorizes the agency to give minors special consideration.
“They’re not following their own policy,” Gagarin said. “I just can’t see how this kid with no criminal record, who is a good student and a hard worker, who has all his family here, is a priority for deportation.”
His deportation hearing is set for April in Boston.