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Trump order leaves Salvadoran immigrants with many fears, and few options

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Immigration lawyer Cindy Zapata (left) spoke with Maria Aguilar on Saturday at a legal clinic hosted by Somerville and Centro Presente.

By Globe Correspondent 

SOMERVILLE — Blanca Portillo doesn’t want to consider the life she will have if she returns to El Salvador, a country she fled as a pregnant widow 21 years ago, after her husband and her mother were murdered there in separate incidents, she said Saturday.

“I have my house here,” said Portillo, 41, who owns a home in East Boston with her second husband, an immigrant from Mexico, and works in catering. “I have a car. I have a very good job; I am so happy in my job. I feel like this is my country. It’s not my country, but I feel like it is.”

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Portillo could be forced to return to El Salvador — where criminal gangs have made kidnapping, extortion, and violence into aspects of daily life — after the Trump administration announced Monday that it will end Temporary Protected Status for Salvadoran immigrants.

TPS, which blocks deportation of selected groups of immigrants, was applied to Salvadorans in 2001 after two devastating earthquakes struck the Central American country. After Monday’s announcement, about 200,000 Salvadorans in the US have 18 months to leave or attain legal status.

Portillo fervently hopes she can stay here, near her five sisters and one of two brothers. That’s why she traveled Saturday morning to a legal clinic hosted by the City of Somerville and Centro Presente, a statewide immigrant support organization.

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, said Somerville is a model of how a city can support immigrant residents, and she would like to see more cities follow its lead.

“Immigrant communities have been giving a lot to localities,” Montes said. “They have been paying taxes, they are buying houses, sending kids to schools. And I would like to see the governments giving back to immigrant communities.”

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Some Salvoradorans living in the United States under TPS may have other paths to remain, such as a spouse or child who is a citizen, and can petition to be granted legal status, but many do not.

“There are very, very few avenues,” Montes said. “That’s why we’re doing these clinics. We want to have . . . experts on immigration who are able to give responsible advice.”

Alex Pirie, a coordinator at Somerville-based Immigrant Service Providers Group/Health, said the Trump administration’s crackdown has terrified many immigrants who are undocumented or who have been protected by programs now in jeopardy, such as TPS.

They are frightened by the conspicuous presence of agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement at locations such as Logan International Airport and local courthouses, Pirie said.

Some immigrants are skipping medical appointments or not signing up for health insurance because they are scared that such acts could lead to deportation, Pirie said, causing concern about long-term health consequences.

“You get the impression you’re living in a whole other country than what you grew up in,” Pirie said. “This is not America; this is some proto-fascist state. . . . It may not be the reality, but this is the perception. We feel that they are working hard to create that feeling. They’re using this as a message to the home country: ‘Don’t come to the United States.’ ”

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John Willshire Carrera, one of the attorneys offering counsel on Saturday, said the profane comment President Trump reportedly made Thursday while discussing immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and African countries is consistent with the way he has enforced immigration policy.

“It shows what the animus is in these cases,” he said. “It’s very clear to me that so much of it is targeted on people because of race.”

TPS is both a community concern and a deeply personal issue for Irma Flores, Somerville’s community liaison for Spanish-speakers, who came from El Salvador with her two children in 2001. Now her children are grown and have their own children, who are American citizens.

“I can’t imagine how people will make that decision — ‘OK, I’m going back to El Salvador, and I will leave my kids here.’ Or my grandchildren here, in my case,” Flores said. “I can’t make that decision either. . . . Somebody asked me, ‘What is your plan?’ and I said, ‘I don’t have a plan.’ ”

Maria, 52, who asked that her last name not be published, said she worries that if she leaves the United States, no one will support her older daughter and two grandsons who live with her, or her 75-year-old mother in El Salvador, who all rely on her financially.

For many years, she said, she worked three jobs to support her family. Now she has two, cleaning a hospital and washing laundry in a nursing home. There are few jobs back home, she said, and even good jobs pay little. Her younger daughter, who is financially independent, makes $400 a month working in Salvadoran television.

On Friday, she said, her mother called her, worried.

“My mother cried. ‘Who will give me my money for my medication, for my food? Nobody,’ ” Maria said.

For Portillo, one hope is that she can be sponsored for permanent status by her 20-year-old daughter, Joselyn Portillo — the baby she was carrying when she left El Salvador and who was born in Boston.

Joselyn said she could take care of herself if her mother and stepfather had to leave, but she worries for her half-sister, who is 16, and especially her half-brother, who is 6.

“It’s either him being here, growing up without his parents — his older sister having to be like the mom and dad,” she said. “Or it’s him moving to El Salvador or Mexico, and like, what kind of future is he going to have?”


Jeremy C Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.