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6,000 Salvadorans In Mass. Will Lose Protected Status04:22
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As Irma Flores stirs milk in a pan, her daughter Gabriela Portillo-Perez speaks with her grandmother Isabel on the phone in El Salvador. The Trump administration announced Monday it would be ending temporary protected status for immigrants from El Salvador. Flores and her two children are in the U.S. under the auspices of TPS. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
As Irma Flores stirs milk in a pan, her daughter Gabriela Portillo-Perez speaks with her grandmother Isabel on the phone in El Salvador. The Trump administration announced Monday it would be ending temporary protected status for immigrants from El Salvador. Flores and her two children are in the U.S. under the auspices of TPS. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that it will not renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans.

The temporary immigration status has allowed Salvadorans to stay and work without fear of deportation in the United States in the wake of devastating back-to-back earthquakes that hit the Central American country in 2001.

The Trump administration says Salvadoran TPS holders have until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the U.S. or make arrangements for another legal status before they become eligible for deportation.

Administration officials say country conditions have improved in El Salvador since the 2001 earthquakes. The administration says widespread gang violence there is not a factor in this determination.

There are an estimated 200,000 TPS recipients from El Salvador living in the U.S., with more than 6,000 recipients living in Massachusetts, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Salvadorans represent the largest share of a TPS holders in Massachusetts' immigrant community.

'I Don't Think People Will Leave'

When Irma Flores and her two children applied for TPS in 2001, she knew it was a temporary means of living and working legally in the U.S.

But every 18 months or so for the last 16 years, that status was renewed.

And in that time, Flores, who lives in Haverhill, sent her children to college, her daughter bought a home, and Flores now has three grandchildren who are U.S. citizens. She says the Trump administration's decision is devastating but she's ready to fight in order to stay here.

"Doesn't matter what are the reasons you came to this country but I think we have been demonstrating to the government, we are hard workers," she says. "We just asking for the legal permit to be in this country because we have been here for 18, 20 years."

Flores says that just because Salvadoran TPS holders are told to leave doesn't necessarily mean they will.

"We have been contributing to the United States. We pay taxes," she says. "And this is just crazy because I don't think people will leave voluntarily, so that means probably we will be under [the] shadows again and that is an issue for this country as well."

Nineteen-year-old Elmer Vivas Portillo's mother, who is from El Salvador, has been living in the U.S. with TPS since 2001. Vivas Portillo and his younger brother are both U.S.-born citizens and live in Cambridge.

"In my mother's case if she just decides to leave, she's leaving behind an entire life and her kids are here," he says.

The sophomore at Harvard University says he expects difficult conversations among his family in the coming months.

"It's absolutely going to require, you know, having a conversation all of us together and saying we're going to explore other options," he says. "But you know, when that September 2019 deadline rolls around, what are we going to do?"

'They Own Businesses, Have Mortgages, Pay Taxes'

Eva Millona of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition says losing 6,000 Salvadoran immigrants would be a hit to the state's economy and communities.

"Salvadorians by far are the largest group of TPS holders," Millona says. "They have established strong ties and deep connections to their local communities. They own businesses, have mortgages, pay taxes."

When TPS expires for Salvadorans in 2019, their work authorization expires along with it.

The Center for American Progress estimates Salvadoran TPS holders pump more than $400 million into the state's GDP annually.  Because many of them have been living here so long, they have also started families and have an estimated 4,000 U.S. citizen children among them.

Calls For Congress To Act

In November, the administration announced the end of TPS for Haitians, leaving close to 5,000 Haitian immigrants in Massachusetts uncertain of their future.

The humanitarian protective status is granted to citizens of countries where war or natural disasters make it unsafe to return to their home country. It is made by the homeland security secretary and renewed at the secretary's discretion.

While living in the U.S. with TPS, an immigrant cannot be deported, even if they arrived in the U.S. without permission. They are also eligible for employment authorization.

Senior administration officials say El Salvador has largely recovered from the destruction caused by the 2001 earthquakes.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said "only Congress can legislate a permanent solution addressing the lack of an enduring lawful immigration status of those currently protected by TPS who have lived and worked in the United States for many years. The 18-month delayed termination will allow Congress time to craft a potential legislative solution."

They suggest TPS holders use the next 18 months to explore legal options for staying in the U.S. or to prepare to return to El Salvador.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat who represents the 2nd Congressional District in Massachusetts, condemned the administration's move to dismantle TPS, a law he helped draft, for Salvadorans.

“America has a proud legacy as a beacon of hope to the world, welcoming those who seek a better life. This decision by President Trump and Secretary Nielsen is a shameful and cynical move to punish these innocent families just to score political points with the extreme right-wing Republican base. I am angry and dismayed at this cruel decision. It is a very distorted and narrow interpretation of the law, which provides flexibility to weigh current realities and not just the effects of the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador," he said in a statement.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone is an outspoken supporter of immigrants' rights and says Congress is way overdue in passing comprehensive immigration reform. In lieu of a national solution, he says he'll continue to fight on behalf of TPS recipients in his own community.

"Locally, we're going to continue to fight for our friends and our families and our children in our community," he said. "The level of advocacy and activism to support the people we care about, we love, will be unprecedented."

This segment aired on January 9, 2018.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is a reporter representing WBUR on a team of public radio station journalists in the New England News Collaborative.

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