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.