Families anxious over fate after DHS ends special immigration status

There are some 262,500 Salvadorans who must decide: leave or face deportation.

January 8, 2018, 8:19 PM

— -- Cristian Chavez Guevara doesn't have a plan. For the father of three and his family -- two stepdaughters, ages 12 and 11, and a 15-year-old cousin he has raised as his own, -- he does not know what comes next, after the Trump administration said it would terminate his legal status-- known as Temporary Protected Status.

After 17 years in the U.S., he will either have to live here illegally or go back to El Salvador, the country he once fled still racked by gang violence, and leave behind his daughters, who are American citizens.

"I am, like, lost right now, I feel lost... It's like all my plans for the future just ended," he said Monday, his voice shaking with emotion. "I’m sorry, but talking about that, it just makes me sad because my family will get broken."

Guevara lives in Houston and works in the IT field. ABC News reached him through the pro-immigrant group America's Voice Education Fund.

There are some 262,500 Salvadorans who, like Guevara, have been in the U.S. for years, but now must make the same decision: Leave or face deportation.

The Department of Homeland Security made the announcement Monday, giving those Salvadorans with the protected status 18 months -- until September 9, 2019. The move comes after the Trump administration ended similar programs for 58,600 Haitians, 5,300 Nicaraguans, and 1,050 Sudanese, all legally in the U.S. under TPS.

TPS is a special immigration status for people from a foreign country where the U.S. determines that conditions in that home country prevent those people from returning safely or where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately. The Trump administration has argued that conditions that initially prevented a safe return have ended, so their protected status should be terminated, too.

In the case of El Salvador, the Trump administration maintains that earthquake-related conditions-- which forced Guevara to flee originally-- have improved to the point that TPS is no longer necessary-- and a senior DHS official said that was the sole basis for its decision when asked on a conference call with reporters whether ongoing violence in El Salvador was a concern.

But to critics and recipients alike, dangerous conditions still prevent these immigrants from returning -- and after nearly two decades in the U.S., argue it would be disruptive for their lives and their communities.

"I don’t want to go back. I love this country, and my kids were born here and they go to school, they have friends," Chavez Guevara said. "We don't want to leave, we want to continue our lives."

PHOTO: Cristian Chavez Guevara, 37, must choose between living illegally in the U.S. or returning to his native El Salvador after the Trump administration announced it is ending the program for Salvadorans living in America.
Cristian Chavez Guevara, 37, must choose between living illegally in the U.S. or returning to his native El Salvador after the Trump administration announced it is ending the program for Salvadorans living in America.
Cristian Chavez Guevara

TPS was first granted for El Salvador in 2001 after a series of earthquakes, but since then, it has been extended every six months for nearly 17 years. The Obama administration said in its final extension that there was still a "substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in El Salvador" and the country "remains unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return of its nationals."

But the Trump administration determined otherwise, with DHS, which manages the program, saying Monday that infrastructure had been repaired and El Salvador had demonstrated an ability to receive its citizens. While Trump made the same decision for Nicaragua, Haiti, and Sudan, the administration extended the program for Honduras through July 5, 2018.

Perhaps the greatest concern critics have with the TPS change is what happens to the children who would be left behind. Although DHS does not track the numbers, there are some 192,000 children who are U.S. citizens and born to TPS-recipient Salvadoran parents, according to pro-immigrant activists.

That means many parents will have to choose between uprooting their children and bringing them to a country they've never lived in -- and in the case of El Salvador, a violent one at that -- or leave them behind in the U.S. without their parent or parents.

"The decision affects the mental and physical health of my children," said Veronica Lagunas, another TPS recipient from San Fernando Valley, California, in a statement distributed by the National TPS Alliance.

Like any parent, many TPS recipients expressed fear about the safety of their children if they brought them with them to El Salvador.

"If forced to return to El Salvador, mothers, fathers, and children could face extortion, kidnapping, coerced service to gangs, and sexual violence," Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. "By returning TPS recipients to El Salvador, the United States could be sending people to their deaths."

Chavez Guevara made the same argument, wondering aloud what real option he had: "I don’t want to take my daughter, none of my kids to a violent environment, but I don’t want to leave them here... It's difficult to think about."

"It’s an awful position to put people in," said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, a pro-immigrant group. "This is a technical policy decision, but it's part of a broader approach that is radical, is stunning, I think will go down in history as one of the darker chapters in American history unless Congress steps up and does the right thing."

Congress is exploring some options to provide TPS recipients with legal permanent resident status, and according to a person familiar with negotiations on Capitol Hill, congressional Democrats had agreed to discuss curbing the diversity visa lottery program in exchange for expanded TPS protections.

It's a fight that TPS families and their advocates say they are gearing up for, with plans to lobby Congress to do that. The hashtag #SaveTPS was trending on Monday, with many members of Congress weighing in.

".@realDonaldTrump decision on #TPS will make tens of thousands of immigrants who legally work and serve their communities and families in America into UNDOCUMENTED immigrants. Congress must act! #SaveTPS," tweeted Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-New York, the first formerly undocumented immigrant to ever serve in Congress.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., announced plans to introduce a bill this week that would shield Salvadoran TPS recipients from deportation -- while a bipartisan group of Florida representatives introduced a bill last October to grant legal permanent resident status to TPS holders from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti.

"We still have more than a year to keep on fighting, and I believe we still have a chance," Benjamin Zepeda, an American citizen and the teenage son of TPS recipients, said in a statement from the National TPS Alliance. "I'm more ready than ever to be involved in the campaign to get permanent residency for my parents and all other TPS holders."

PHOTO: An immigration advocacy and assistance organization holds a rally in Lafayette Park, across from the White House in Washington, Jan. 8, 2018, in reaction to the announcement regarding Temporary Protective Status for people from El Salvador.
An immigration advocacy and assistance organization holds a rally in Lafayette Park, across from the White House in Washington, Jan. 8, 2018, in reaction to the announcement regarding Temporary Protective Status for people from El Salvador.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

"Our fight will only get stronger after this decision. If we’ve learned one thing is to never give up. For our children and families, we are willing to keep fighting, and we will do this every day," added TPS recipient Rosa Cecilia from Long Island, New York.

But given the dysfunction in Washington and Trump's hard line on immigration, many families are uncertain that a deal will come through -- especially as right-leaning groups applauded the move Monday.

"The decision... is long overdue and welcome, sending the strongest signal yet that rampant abuse of the TPS program will no longer be accepted by this administration," Federation for American Immigration Reform president Dan Stein said in a statement.

The White House is set to host a bipartisan group of senators to talk immigration Tuesday.

Without a deal, though, come next September, many will likely not uproot themselves, but instead become undocumented, living in the U.S. illegally.

"We’ve now placed a million people who have worked and lived legally in the United States for years and who've been vetted -- we've now taken that status away from them... and the addition of a million people to the undocumented population just creates instability and problems not just for these families, but for their communities," said Royce Murray, policy director for the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council.

Many of those will apply for asylum or green cards -- but with an enormous backlog, they will be forced to wait for years and risk deportation before then.

"I have done what an immigrant should do, and it's hard to come to this situation now after 17 years of a normal life," said Chavez Guevara. "Everything just vanished, and I don't understand."

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