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Thousands of Mass. immigrants on edge over legal status

Luz Elena Martinez, who is from El Salvador, is worried about her temporary protected status. Her daughter Sofia Flores, 3, is a US citizen. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

MEDFORD — In Luz Elena Martinez’s mind, there are two El Salvadors.

One is the home she hasn’t seen for two decades, a country she still misses, whose name decorates her house. It means “The Savior,” in Spanish.

The other El Salvador is a violent place she fled in 1999 after her father-in-law was shot to death in front of her by strangers. “It was very difficult,” Martinez said in Spanish.

She began a new life in the United States, receiving Temporary Protected Status, a federal classification established decades ago to protect immigrants who could not safely return to their countries because of civil disruptions or natural disasters.


But now, as she awaits a Trump administration decision to eliminate TPS for immigrants from Haiti and Central America, her legal status, along with that of hundreds of thousands of others, hangs in the balance. Revoking TPS could mean the deportation of thousands of immigrants who’ve lived in the United States for decades.

“Each of us had a reason we left the most precious parts of our life behind, our families, our loved ones,” Martinez said. “We decided to come for security and to save our own lives and the lives of our children.”

On Monday, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that it was ending the protected status for some 2,500 immigrants from Nicaragua “with a delayed effective date of 12 months to allow for an orderly transition.” Officials extended the status for 57,000 immigrants from Honduras for six months.

A decision on Haiti is expected later this month. A decision on El Salvador is slated for early January.

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly sent a letter to Elaine Duke, the acting head of DHS, saying that conditions in Central America and Haiti no longer required immigrants stay in the country under TPS. The letter was first reported by The Washington Post.


Approximately 7,800 people in Massachusetts are TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti and 5,300 US-born children in Massachusetts have parents from those countries with TPS, according to liberal think tank the Center for American Progress.

Revere resident Yesy Carvajal left Honduras in 1998, after Hurricane Mitch razed her whole life to the ground. Her family was granted temporary protected status and started over in the United States when she was 18. Now 38, she refuses to uproot her 4-year-old daughter for an unstable life in a country she left behind long ago. And leaving her American-born child is no choice at all.

“I’m going to fight until the very end,” Carvajal said in Spanish. “My daughter is an American citizen and she deserves every right that designation offers her.”

Kari Hong, an assistant professor at Boston College Law School who specializes in immigration and criminal justice, was concerned that DHS would consider revoking TPS from immigrants from so many countries in such a short period of time. “TPS determinations are made on a country-by-country, year-by-year, instance-by-instance basis,” she said. “To have a categorical blanket announcement that these deliberate decisions are now void concerns me. I would like to see the evidence it’s based on.”

Nationwide, more than 300,000 immigrants from Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador have TPS status, according to the Center for Migration Studies.

Monday was Martinez’s day off from her job as a receptionist with an East Boston immigrant rights organization called Centro Presente. She hears stories like her own on a weekly basis.


“For the past 20 years we’ve had more than 1,000 people from El Salvador and Honduras that have been renewing TPS at Centro Presente,” said Patricia Montes, executive director for the nonprofit. “Last year after the [2016 presidential] election, we definitely were afraid that TPS was going to be eliminated. We launched a campaign to raise awareness about TPS and organized our members.”

Montes has worked with local legislators to pass citywide resolutions in support of TPS in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville since the beginning of the year. She’s now working with state representatives to pass a similar symbolic statewide resolution in support of TPS.

“We’re talking about a program that’s been going on for more than two decades that has been on many occasions bipartisan,” said state Representative Adrian Madaro, an East Boston Democrat, who has been trying to build support for the resolution at the State House.

“The great concern now is what’s next? You’re talking tens of thousands of people,” he said. “What would it mean for those folks to have that yanked away and told you’re no longer protected?”

Monday, Martinez played with her 3-year-old daughter Sofia their small home in Medford. Sofia was born in the United States. She rode around on a pink Minnie Mouse scooter, played games on her mother’s cellphone, and sang songs in English, while speaking to her mother in Spanish.


TPS has given Martinez legal standing in this country. It gave her proper documentation. But she says she feels like a foreigner under the current administration.

“With all the different reasons we leave our countries, the first goal is to get here,” she said in Spanish. “The moment you have papers, you feel the change and safety provided by that document. But at the same time you feel a sadness that your value is based on that document.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.