On the surface, Vanessa and Enrique Velasco look like they are living the American Dream. The two immigrants, both from El Salvador—they met as teenagers while both were taking business-studies courses at the university in San Salvador—live in a large, newly constructed, and spotless house in the suburban community of Brentwood, half an hour south of Oakland, California. They have made sure that the house reflects their personalities: In the hallway, just inside the front door, is a large foosball table. Hanging above the fireplace in the living room, when I visited a few days before the new year, were the family’s five Christmas stockings, each one embroidered with a name in red. In 2016, they began thinking about buying a second home as an investment property. Over the years they have saved money: in retirement accounts, in education funds for their kids. Now, finally, in their late 30s, they feel a bit more financially secure, able to dress in stylish clothes, to drive nice cars.
The Velascos have three kids, all US citizens: two girls, 17 and 12, and a 4-year-old son. Vanessa has successfully home-schooled their two daughters, Arianna and Dayana; Andres is slated to start kindergarten in September. Enrique has a thriving career as a construction worker, doing landmark restoration projects. Arianna is waiting to hear about whether she has been admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, where she hopes to major in political science.
They are, in short, a successful, kind, and considerate family, firmly established in their community, the sort of people whom one would want as neighbors and as friends. But, as it happens, they are also, in the Trump era, living on a knife edge, their legal status now hostage to the whim of an impulsive, relentlessly nativist administration.
On Monday, in its latest anti-immigrant move, the administration announced that it would, by September 2019, end Temporary Protected Status for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, which has allowed people like the Velascos to remain in the United States for the better part of two decades and to craft new lives for themselves here. Overnight, these people people have now gone from enjoying legal status to soon-to-be-deportable. Their families have, suddenly, become as breakable, as delicate, as porcelain.
El Salvador in the 1990s and early 2000s was a fragile place. In the 1980s, it, along with its Central American neighbors, had been a pawn in the superpower game played out at the end of the Cold War. Huge numbers died in civil wars—most of them at the hands of death squads and other armed forces working for US-supported military regimes. After the civil strife ended, economic chaos continued; and, with that chaos came social breakdown and continued violence—this time the violence of gangs, extortion rackets, and drug smugglers. By the tens of thousands, young Salvadorans, believing they had no future in their home country and fearing for their safety if they stayed, picked up and left. They headed north, hoping to find at least a modicum of security and safety in the United States.
Vanessa and Enrique were part of this migration. In 2000, they left the university, flew to San Francisco on a tourist visa—and disappeared into the shadows inhabited by the growing numbers of undocumented residents from Mexico and the smaller countries to its south.
So too did Sonia Paz, the oldest of seven sisters, who fled grinding poverty in 1980s Honduras and made her way to Los Angeles. She left behind, with her mother, her 2-year-old and 6-month-old. It was, she felt, the only way she could financially provide for her children; she would find work and send money back home to buy food and medicine. When she left, she was still lactating and had to duck into filthy rest stations along the way to pump milk from her swollen breasts. She wouldn’t see her children again for five years—when, finally, she smuggled her way back over the borders, collected her children from her mother, and then slowly, carefully, praying they wouldn’t be caught, made her way north again.
Over 30 years, Paz has made a life for herself in the City of Angels. She has three children, the youngest of whom is a citizen, and seven grandchildren. She has worked numerous jobs, mainly as a housecleaner and a babysitter. She has saved money—enough to help put her kids through college. She has put aside a little bit for retirement. Seventeen years ago, feeling that Los Angeles would always be her home, she bought a burial plot in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It cost her $2,500, and she’s been paying it off in small monthly installments ever since. “I’m alone here with my kids,” explains Paz, a middle-aged lady with dyed-orange hair and blue eyeliner. Behind her glasses, her eyes glint. She smiles a lot as she talks. “I’m going to make easy that part [burying her] for my kids.”
Victor Diaz headed north too. Like Paz, he fled hunger and near-destitution as a coffee-plantation worker in Honduras, winding up in the town of Richmond, east of Berkeley. “I didn’t have enough money to eat,” he says simply. “I decided to come here.” So did Orlando Zepeda, who fled El Salvador’s civil war in the mid-1980s and ended up in LA. And Mario Guzman, who left Honduras after being tortured for two days straight in an army-run jail in the early 1990s. Now, 24 years later, he works as a trash collector in San Pablo, California, and owns two small bungalow houses in the city. And Maribel Pacheco, who left Honduras as a teenager in the late 1980s. After a two-month odyssey, walking and taking buses through Guatemala and Mexico—stopping in cities along the way to do odd jobs to raise money for the next stage in the voyage, a journey punctuated by robberies and assaults and middle-of-the-night border crossings through jungles and deserts inhabited by venomous snakes and other lethal creatures—she finally ended up in San Diego.
All came to the United States not on a lark or a whim, but because they feared starvation, political oppression, incarceration, death-by-gangs, or simply being condemned to lives of endless, relentless, grinding poverty. All survived here in the shadows, worked hard, saved money, kept out of trouble, contributed to the US economy…and, ultimately, after years underground, all ended up being the beneficiaries of a program known as Temporary Protected Status.
Somewhere in the range of 400,000 people live in the United States under Temporary Protected Status. It is a gray zone, akin to the Obama administration’s DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which forestalled deportation for undocumented minors), except TPS is the product of congressional legislation—created under the umbrella of the Immigration Act of 1990—rather than executive order. For a few years, in the early 1990s, El Salvador was covered by the program. So, too, for a brief period, was post–Gulf War Kuwait. Lebanon was also an early short-term beneficiary, as were war-torn Bosnia and Liberia. After Hurricane Mitch, it was extended to Honduras and Nicaragua in 1999. In 2001, following a major earthquake, El Salvador, which had been removed from the list in the early 1990s, was added back on. After Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake, that country was also covered. In 2014, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea were granted TPS status due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus. A handful of Middle Eastern countries have been put on the TPS list, as has South Sudan.
Those covered by TPS arrived illegally by crossing the border without documents, or they came legally and overstayed their visas; and after they had been here for a while, the countries from which they originated were estimated by the State Department—and later the Department of Homeland Security, which has overseen the program since DHS was established—to be so unstable, because of war, crime, natural disaster, or epidemic, that Washington deemed it not to be in the national interest to return them. If people from the affected countries could prove, through rent receipts, utility bills, or other means, that they had been in the United States from a particular date and had no criminal record, they could file for TPS.
“A lady I knew said ‘Victor, I have good news for you. You can be legal,’” Diaz remembers, sitting in the carpeted bedroom of the apartment he owns near a freeway overpass in Richmond, on the wall of which is a poster-board with photos of his family and the words “Feliz Dia Del Padre.” “I laughed. I thought she was joking. I went with her and she paid for my first permit.” After that, he recalled, “my life changed a lot.” Because he could work legally, he could command higher wages. At a boatyard, he learned carpentry. Then he got a job building the floors of trucks. Then he began to work as a driver for the bedding manufacturer Sleep Train. His family—some of his children were born in Honduras, whom he brought to the country without papers; others were born here—expanded. His horizons grew. He was able to buy his home, put aside money for his kids.
There were two motives in play for setting up TPS. One was a humanitarian impulse. And the second, probably the more dominant of the two, was a geopolitical calculus: Mostly, the affected countries were American allies, so it would have been politically awkward to grant tens of thousands of exiles from these lands asylum or refugee status. But the countries were also so economically and politically dysfunctional that returning tens or even hundreds of thousands of migrants en masse would have created an economic catastrophe, swamping already dilapidated public services and depriving those countries of vitally needed dollars, sent by ex-residents now working in the States to families back home.
And so, under the radar, without the controversy that would later surround DACA, TPS expanded, with bipartisan support, from the early 1990s onward, with one country after another granted such status. Disproportionately, the bulk of TPS recipients over the past two decades have been from three countries: El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti. And disproportionately, they ended up in a handful of states: mostly California, Florida, Texas, and New York, with California having by far the largest group.
Granting TPS to these hundreds of thousands of men and women simply acknowledged a reality: Like it or not, they were already here, undocumented, living and working in the shadows, and it was both unrealistic and cruel to ship them back to their ravaged home countries.
So, the argument went, why not grant them temporary residency with renewable work permits, if they passed the background check, kept their records clean, and paid their taxes? Besides, TPS would take hundreds of thousands of people out of the informal economy, which would boost their earning power, resulting in both higher tax receipts and increased consumer spending. They wouldn’t have citizenship, of course, and technically they wouldn’t even be permanent residents, so they wouldn’t be able to get passports or enroll in welfare programs, but they would be able to work legally. It was thought to be a win-win.
Mario Guzman went from being a day laborer who would stand on Cesar Chavez Street in San Francisco waiting for people to hire him for casual jobs to being a trash collector with health insurance and paid vacation days. He was able to save money to support his eight children, several of whom would ultimately follow him north to California to escape the violence that’s been tearing Honduras apart. He was able to send money back home to help support family members who stayed. He was able to pay monthly child support for the one child he fathered after he arrived in the United States.
The devil, however, was in the details: Like DACA, TPS was designed as a renewable “temporary” system, until such time in the undefined future when the home countries were deemed stable or Congress got around to passing comprehensive immigration reform that would give TPS recipients a pathway to permanent status. But the longer the can was kicked down the road, the more rooted these men and women became in the United States. They married, had US-citizen children, took out mortgages and car loans, signed up for credit cards, opened bank accounts, established businesses. In short, they did just what American citizens do with their lives. Not only that, but—far from harming the economic prospects of home-grown Americans, as nativists argue—in poor and transient neighborhoods plagued by decay, drug addiction, crime, and homelessness, TPS recipients provided urgently needed anchors and investment streams. They have actually helped to not only stabilize but revive communities across the country.
A recent survey conducted by academics at the University of Kansas’s Center for Migration Research, in conjunction with an array of immigrant-rights groups, found that 94 percent of male TPS holders and 82 percent of females were working; that about one-third owned their homes; and that roughly half had advanced their education level since arriving in the United States.
Some countries, particularly during the early days of the program, were granted TPS for only a few years, meaning the recipients didn’t have time to sink deep roots here. A more recent example came in the waning months of the Obama administration, when DHS announced the imminent end of coverage for Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea; about 4,000 people from those countries, or slightly less than 1 percent of the total TPS population, have been told to leave.
But for those countries from where the overwhelming majority of TPS recipients originated, the status was routinely extended for years, and their stay here became, by default, something akin to permanent residency. Over the decades, the Belascos, Victor Diaz, Sonia Paz, and many thousands of others came to think of themselves every bit as American as their neighbors, colleagues, and schoolmates.
By 2017, many TPS recipients from countries like El Salvador and Honduras, who had arrived as teenagers or young adults, were well into middle-age. In many instances, their children were now adults. Maribel Pacheco’s oldest son is studying to be a doctor, her middle child is working toward becoming a nurse, and her youngest is about to enter the Coast Guard. “TPS was like a big gate opened for me,” Pacheco, now 45, says of the opportunity it provided her to reinvent her life. “I got TPS, started to work two jobs, paid my taxes, gave something to the country. I kept working. I’m always looking for opportunities. I have three kids who work and study.”
When the 2016 election catapulted a sadistic nativist into the White House, the flaw of leaving these men and women in a near-permanent limbo became manifest. In a saner world, TPS could have served as something of a template to normalize the status of the country’s roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants; in the insane world of Trump, however, where the GOP has gone down an increasingly xenophobic road, the reverse holds: The precarious status of the 12 million undocumented would now be aggressively extended to those with TPS.
Some—if they have married a US citizen or have a US-citizen child 21 or older—might be able to apply for permanent residency. But for people like the Velascos and Mario Guzman, whose oldest children are still too young to sponsor them, the future is suddenly fraught with peril. They were now faced with the reality of a president who seems to think that all migrants from El Salvador and Honduras are associated with violent gangs. Trump wants to wind down the entire program, country by country, as a part of his promise to his base not to provide any succor to people who gained a foothold in the United States without possessing the required documents.
“There is nothing for me in Honduras,” says Guzman, sitting in the living room of his cozy California home. “There is a political conflict. Many criminals. Organized crime is very strong there right now.” There is also high unemployment, and he does not see how, at 55, he would stand a chance of finding a job. Guzman tries to look on the bright side; on the large speaker next to his TV a tile is propped up, on the glaze of which are emblazoned the words, “Life isn’t waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain.” Yet it’s hard to stay optimistic when faced with such uncertainties about his legal status. He says, shaking his head, that if TPS is terminated, even if he stays in the United States and goes underground, he knows that without documents he will lose his job, and without a steady income he will lose the home he has worked so hard for.
In May, the DHS, led by then-Secretary John Kelly, extended TPS for more than 50,000 Haitians for six months. “This six-month extension should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States,” Kelly coldly warned at the time. Those “other arrangements” presumably included working out where to place their children, selling off their homes and other possessions, and somehow finding sources of income and housing in the hemisphere’s most impoverished, cholera-plagued country. Then, at the end of November, DHS announced that TPS for all Haitians was being terminated. Anecdotes now abound of Haitians fleeing north to a more open Canada. In December, The New York Times reported that in June conversations about the status of Haitian migrants, President Trump suggested that all Haitians have AIDS.
DHS also announced it was ending TPS for several thousand Nicaraguans. Next on the chopping block could be Honduras, with 86,000. Kelly, from his new position as White House chief of staff, strongly urged his replacement at DHS to end TPS for that country late last year; instead, she bucked the political pressure and extended it for six months. Despite the current political turmoil in Honduras, it seems unlikely that it will be renewed again when it expires in July.
The impact of the DHS announcement on Monday will be immediate and devastating for almost 200,000 Salvadorans. For anti-immigrant advocates, it’s an easy way to signal the increasingly closed nature of the country. Beating up on people like the Velascos is red meat to the increasingly xenophobic GOP base.
TPS is low-hanging fruit for this anti-immigrant administration, because unlike DACA, its recipients have until recently been largely without a vocal political lobby and without much political support. “We weren’t organized,” explains Victor Diaz. “We never put our goals anywhere. Only people working, working, working. Nobody knew about us.” The program itself never received a lot of media attention, so it’s reasonable to assume most Americans had never heard of it. Most elected officials, activists found, were also ignorant about how it worked. Only in the past few months have immigrant-rights groups started to furiously organize and lobby on the issue. “Now, we’ll never be quiet,” says Diaz, who recently became an organizer with the San Francisco–based Central American Resource Center (CARC). “If we are all together, we win. If we’re scared, they take us out.”
For Vanessa Velasco, struggling with the flu and laryngitis, the January 8 announcement was something she had long dreaded—and yet, given the administration’s track record, something she had expected. “It’s not the moment to fall apart,” she says, trying to fight back tears. “That’s what they want: to scare us, put us behind walls. But it’s not going to work like that. We’re here, we still have voice, still have the permit to work and the ID to fly to Washington. This will be the fight of our lives.”
Yet time is not on the organizers’ side. Because TPS is renewable every few months (it has generally been extended in increments ranging from six months to two years), by the time CARC and other groups started working on the issue—and by the time members of Congress such as Nydia Velázquez and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chris Van Hollen began trying to drum up support among their colleagues for a legislative fix—the rollback of status had already commenced.
Velázquez, along with 58 other sponsors, has introduced the American Promise Act, providing a pathway to permanent residency for people who were granted TPS before October 2017 and had lived in this country for at least three years. It has been endorsed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, but, despite seven GOP representatives writing to DHS last year urging that protections be granted, it hasn’t yet picked up the support it needs to pass. “We need to build as broad a coalition as possible to maximize the outcry and build pressure to solve this. I can say that, in addition to immigration-advocacy groups, labor organizations have been particularly outspoken and helpful in this regard,” says Velázquez. “Given the economic importance of TPS beneficiaries to many communities, I am hoping to also see the business community engage.”
In recent months, Trump’s defenders have taken to calling him “Churchillian,” citing his resolve in the face of myriad enemies. But Churchill’s motto was “In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Good Will.” There is nothing magnanimous, nothing signifying good will, in Trump’s actions. To the contrary, in using the most powerful agencies of the federal government to terrorize millions of law-abiding residents, in removing legal status from entire groups of people, Trump is wreaking havoc on a massive scale. He’ll be separating tens of thousands of parents from their children, since many children of TPSers do not have passports or other documentation from their parents’ countries of origin, and would thus face obstacles returning with them. And quite apart from those technical issues, how many parents will be willing to subject their kids to conditions of abject poverty and, often, extreme physical danger in a country they’ve never been to?
The revocation of TPS, Representative Velázquez said on Monday, “is another cold hearted, disgraceful step by the Trump Administration targeting hardworking immigrant families who have been here for decades, building lives, planting roots and contributing to local communities and economies.” In the administration’s almost gleeful rending of families, one sees images of the slave catcher and the slave auctions. In its declaration of illegal status for people who had been legal for decades, and who were firmly a part of the broader society and economy, ones can see frightening shadows of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws.
Victor approaches his predicament with something akin to bravado: If he has to move to Tijuana (he is confident he could get a work visa for Mexico), he will. After all, he says phlegmatically, it’s close and his family will be able to come visit. Orlando and Sonia both profess to being ready to go underground and survive, once again, in the Los Angeles shadows they inhabited for all those years before they received TPS. “We find ways to do it,” Orlando says, sitting in a donut shop in the Ramparts District of LA and laughing ruefully. “Those are our secrets.”
But the Velascos—who are middle class and upwardly mobile, with a million paper trails from mortgages to retirement accounts making them easy to find, with their oldest daughter applying to UC Berkeley—do not have the stomach to go underground. Nor do they want to risk being taken to a detention center, in handcuffs, in front of their children. In the wake of this announcement, and if their legal options over the next few months come to nothing, they will ultimately leave, they say. “How do we go back to the shadows?” Vanessa asks rhetorically. “How do you become invisible when you have licenses, kids on competitive teams, a mortgage, bank account, credit cards?”
They will try to sell their beautiful home in suburban Brentwood; they will sell their car. They will try to cash out their retirement funds. They will try to find neighbors and friends and relatives who can provide emotional support to Arianna when she stays behind, separated from her parents and her siblings, so that she can go to college. And they will take their two younger children, neither of whom has ever been to El Salvador, back to a land their parents fled a generation ago, when they were both still college students. They will try to rustle up enough money to send their children to school, since the public-school system in El Salvador is virtually nonexistent. And they will try to protect them from the endemic violence that recently claimed the life of Vanessa’s younger brother, and that makes the country one of the most dangerous in the world to live in.
And in leaving, their hearts will shatter into a million pieces, a heartbreak caused by a malignant federal government organized under Trump to humiliate and hurt vulnerable immigrant populations.
“We were allowed to be here legally,” says Vanessa Velasco sadly, “with all that ‘legally’ implies. And suddenly it’s ‘pack and leave.’ We have kids, US-citizen kids, with rights. The impact of leaving kids here alone is hard. Who’s going to provide for them? Who will be their support when they need emotional support? We don’t learn from history—all the human suffering. When you just want to gain political points, a lot of human suffering is going to be here for years to come. Tragedies too. Young people left behind.” She stops and gasps, horrified at the enormity of the trials her family will face.
If the family has to leave the States, says Enrique, it will be “devastating. Arianna is almost ready to go to college. We cannot imagine leaving her. Working hard all these years to see her graduate, and then all of a sudden we’re separated. Leaving her here alone, so young, trying to survive.”
For Arianna, the prospect is almost unfathomable. “I want my parents to be here when I graduate, to be here each step as I go along my life,” the 17-year-old says softly. “I want to see my little brother grow, my sister grow. I want to have a normal life, and do it together with my family.”
Vanessa, a slim, striking-looking lady, with dark black hair and curled eyelashes, looks at her two daughters sitting next to her on the sofa. Her oldest, on the cusp of adulthood, looks remarkably like her. “A year ago, we had other dreams—to invest in another home, a trip to Disneyland. But right now, we just want to be together, not have this big shadow over everything. When I put the kids to sleep, I just want to freeze the moment. We give them a goodnight kiss. ‘We’re always going to be here with you. See you tomorrow.’ But what will tomorrow bring?”
Correction: The Velasco family name was misspelled; it has now been corrected. Our apologies to the Velascos.