The Trump administration's decision to end special protections for about 200,0000 Salvadoran immigrants filled many Salvadoran families with dread on Monday, raising the possibility that they will be forced to abandon their roots in the US and return to a violent homeland they have not known for years, even decades.
Homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen gave Salvadorans with temporary protected status until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the United States or face deportation. El Salvador becomes the fourth country since President Donald Trump took office to lose protection under the program, which provides humanitarian relief for people whose countries are hit with natural disasters or other strife.
The decision, while not surprising, was a severe blow to Salvadorans in New York, Houston, San Francisco and other major cities that have welcomed them since at least the 1980s.
Guillermo Mendoza, who came to the United States in 2000 when he was 19 years old, was anguished about what to do with his wife and two children who are US citizens.
“What do I do? Do I leave the country and leave them here? That is a tough decision,” said Mr Mendoza, a safety manager at Shapiro & Duncan, a mechanical contractor company in Rockville, Maryland, near Washington.
Orlando Zepeda, who came to the U.S. in 1984 fleeing the civil war in El Salvador, said the lack of surprise does not ease the sting for the 51-year-old Los Angeles-area man who works in building maintenance and has two American-born children.
“It’s sad, because it’s the same story of family separation from that time, and now history repeats itself with my children,” Mr Zepeda said in Spanish.
Many immigrants hope Congress can deliver a long-term reprieve by September 2019. If that fails, they face a grim choice: return to El Salvador voluntarily or live in the US illegally under an administration that has dramatically increased deportation arrests.
Cristian Chavez Guevara, a 37-year-old Salvadoran immigrant in Houston who is raising two American stepchildren and a young cousin, said the decision would tear apart his family. He was unsure what to do.
“I have been building dreams for the future and raising hope for a better future not just for me but for my family,” he said. “All of that came to a halt.”
The action presents a serious challenge for El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people whose economy counts on money sent by wage earners in the US. Over the past decade, growing numbers of Salvadorans — many coming as families or unaccompanied children — have entered the United States illegally through Mexico, fleeing violence and poverty.
In September 2016, the Obama administration extended protections for 18 months, saying El Salvador was still suffering the lingering effects of earthquakes in 2001 that killed more than 1,000 people. The administration said the country was temporarily unable to absorb such a large number of returning people.
Nielsen, who faced a Monday deadline on another extension, concluded that El Salvador has received significant international aid to recover from the earthquake, and homes, schools and hospitals there have been rebuilt.
“The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake” no longer exists, the department said in a statement.
El Salvador president Salvador Sanchez Ceren spoke by phone Friday with Ms Nielsen to renew his plea to extend status for 190,000 Salvadorans and allow more time for Congress to deliver a long-term fix for them to stay in the U.S. The country's top diplomat, foreign minister Hugo Martinez, said Monday’s decision underscored a need for Congress to act.