Monday’s announcement by the Department of Homeland Security that it was once again terminating the status of a group of federally protected immigrants — this time Salvadorans — did not necessarily surprise local immigration advocates who have already been lobbying Congress and preparing for what’s next.
El Salvador is the fourth country in as many months whose citizens have lost Temporary Protected Status, which allows immigrants from certain countries affected by crisis or natural disaster to live and work in the United States legally. But it is not a track to permanent residency or citizenship.
Now, the Trump administration says some 200,000 Salvadorans — about 6,000 in Massachusetts — must leave the country next year or face deportation.
The humanitarian program that has given refuge to Salvadorans since an earthquake in 2001 expires on Sept. 9, 2019, giving families 18 months to get their affairs in order and El Salvador time to handle the potential influx of people. It also gives Congress 18 months to act.
“The question is: Now what?” said Jose Palma, a 41-year-old Salvadoran national who has called Greater Boston home for 19 years. “There are only two options. One is you join the effort to move this community towards a permanent status or you just start packing.”
For him, option No. 2 is really no option at all.
Palma works as a paralegal, and both he and his wife are beneficiaries of the program. His three children, ages 16, 12, and 2, were born in the United States, and his oldest dreams of being a cardiologist.
“I said, ‘you focus on good grades and let me focus on this headache,’ ” he said.
Palma is part of the Massachusetts TPS Committee, which is a member of the National TPS Alliance, a network of TPS beneficiaries including Haitians, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Nepalese.
“We have 18 months to continue to fight,” said Carlos Chacon, a member of the local group, which he said is planning to have a community meeting on Sunday in East Boston. “Everybody is very worried about their situation. What’s going on with their jobs? What’s going on with their house? Everything they built in this society. The end of this program means family separation.”
The national organization was formed in June, after the Trump administration began reengineering the country’s immigration system in earnest and put hundreds of thousands of so-called “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the country illegally as small children, on notice. Two months later, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was terminated.
In September and November, the federal government rescinded Temporary Protected Status for Sudan, Nicaragua, and Haiti.
The termination of the status for immigrants from those countries was delayed much the same way it was for Salvadorans, although the time frames vary. Hondurans were given a slight reprieve in November when then-Aacting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke extended the program for them by six months but said it was “possible” the designation could end.
“We expected no better from this administration, given that just before Thanksgiving, they told tens of thousands of Haitians that they had 18 months to return to dire poverty,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The termination of TPS for Salvadorans will cause a humanitarian crisis.”
But according to Monday’s announcement, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen “determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist.”
Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester, who said in a statement that he helped draft the law authorizing TPS, rejected this explanation.
He said El Salvador is the second most dangerous country in the world, and the administration is applying a “narrow interpretation of the law, which provides flexibility to weigh current realities and not just the effects of the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador.”
“America is better than this,” he said.
Currently, there are about 435,000 immigrants in the country benefiting from the humanitarian program, more than half of them from El Salvador, according to the coalition.
Massachusetts is home to about 12,000 TPS beneficiaries, according to Governor Charlie Baker, who in November urged Duke to “recognize the unsuitability of ordering tens of thousands of Haitians, Salvadorans, and Hondurans now in the United States to return to homelands that are in crisis.”
He also asked Duke to consider the disruption to the national and state economy by removing such a large portion of the workforce. This was a consideration echoed Monday by local and national immigration advocates as well as by members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Royce Murray, the policy director of the American Immigration Council, told reporters on a conference call Monday that about 37,000 Salvadoran immigrants with protected status work in construction while 22,000 work in the food industry; nearly 68,000 are homeowners.
“These folks all risk losing their work authorization on the same day,” she said.