- Nancy Flores American-Statesman Staff
Fear of losing jobs, driver’s licenses and the lives they’ve built in Texas haunt many of immigration lawyer Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch’s clients from El Salvador who soon could lose the legal protection to live and work in the United States through their temporary protected status.
The Homeland Security Department is expected to decide by Monday whether to extend the program, commonly called TPS, to more than 36,000 Salvadoran now holding that status in Texas. After the Trump administration eliminated protected status for Nicaragua and Haiti in the fall, Salvadoran immigrants now worry they are next.
“If TPS is canceled, I will be forced to go back to El Salvador, and it will be a death sentence,” Cristian Chavez, a Salvadoran TPS holder who lives in Houston, said during a conference call with reporters. He’s been in the United States for more than 18 years and works in the information technology field.
“Organized crime controls everything back home,” he said. Chavez has been working on launching a nonprofit group to create opportunities for people in El Salvador.
“A lot of people are upset and don’t know quite what to do,” said Edna Yang, deputy director for American Gateways, which has hosted TPS renewal clinics for immigrants in the Austin area and beyond for decades. Temporary protected status offers legal protection in the United States to foreign citizens whose countries have ongoing civil wars, environmental disasters or other extraordinary conditions that prevent them from safely returning home.
With the threat of losing legal protection, Lincoln-Goldfinch said many Austin-based status holders fear speaking out for fear of reprisal.
El Salvador was designated for TPS status under President George W. Bush in 2001, after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake and powerful aftershocks that caused an estimated 1,100 deaths and left more than 2,500 people missing. The federal government’s most recent El Salvador TPS extension, which runs through March 9, cites subsequent natural disasters as well as food, water and gang-related insecurity as reasons for its continued designation.
In December, Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin and other Catholic partners sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urging for an 18-month extension of the TPS program for El Salvador.
“Terminating TPS for El Salvador now would be inhumane and untenable; El Salvador is in no position to accommodate the return of roughly 200,000 Salvadorans,” the letter stated. “It would also divide American families as many parents would not bring their U.S. citizen children back to (Central America’s violent) Northern Triangle, where they would face acute integration challenges, violence and potential persecution.”
According to the Center for American Progress, an estimated 42,500 U.S.-born Texas children have Salvadoran parents who are TPS holders.
Critics of the extension say the designation for countries such as El Salvador was always meant to be temporary.
“No doubt having to return home will be inconvenient and disruptive to their lives, but that is more of an argument against giving in to pleas for repeated extensions of TPS than it is in favor of granting yet another one,” wrote Ira Mehlman, media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform in an opinion article for The Hill newspaper.
“Likewise, ending TPS will cause some short-term disruption to the home countries from the loss of the remittances. However, in the long run, these nations stand to gain far more from the reintegration of their own citizens who, with the benefit of the education and work experience they have gained in the United States, are positioned to help their countries build stronger economies that do not rely on sending their best people abroad,” he wrote.
Lincoln-Goldfinch said eliminating El Salvador’s TPS designation would further overload a backlogged immigration court as people would seek out lawful alternatives to their immigration status. “It’d cause huge havoc in their lives and in their employer’s lives,” she said.
If a decision isn’t reached about El Salvador’s status by Monday, an automatic six-month extension will likely occur as it did with Honduras last fall when the Trump administration deferred a decision about its status. Legal protection for Hondurans now ends July 5, and a final decision is expected this summer.
If status for El Salvador is rescinded, the Homeland Security Department could extend the expiration date “to allow for an orderly transition” as Acting Secretary Elaine Duke announced last year for Nicaragua and Haiti.
“Our immigration system should be examined,” Yang said. “When protection is granted for decades and then taken away, that’s not just.”