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From Mass. To El Salvador, Families Are Bracing For The End Of TPS07:32
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A couple walk hand-in-hand into Panaderia Pacita Quintanilla in San Vicente, El Salvador. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
A couple walk hand-in-hand into Panaderia Pacita Quintanilla in San Vicente, El Salvador. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Isabel Quintanilla is FaceTiming with her daughter, Irma Flores. This is the easiest way for the two to keep in touch. Quintanilla lives in El Salvador and hasn't met her new great-grandson. She asks her daughter, Flores, how the baby is sleeping these days.

For almost 20 years, Flores has been living in Massachusetts with TPS. The temporary immigration status allows people from countries devastated by natural disasters or civil war to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Since 2001, when El Salvador was hit by back-to-back earthquakes, its TPS membership has been regularly renewed. But earlier this year, the Trump administration announced it is ending the program for Salvadorans.

Leaving Family, Losing Money

Flores, who lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, says it's hard to comprehend the thought of returning to El Salvador.

"It's, it's difficult," Flores says with a long sigh. "I never had the time to ask about my own family. I just need that time to figure it out: 'OK, do we have to make some decisions?' "

Irma Flores in her home in Haverhill in 2017. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Irma Flores in her home in Haverhill in 2017. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Decisions like, does she leave behind her daughter, her son and her grandchildren? Does she leave behind her career working with the city of Somerville? An estimated 6,000 Salvadorans living in Massachusetts — and nearly 200,000 Salvadorans across the country — with TPS are facing similar decisions.

"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.

People with TPS are authorized to work in the U.S. The Center for American Progress estimates Salvadoran TPS holders pump more than $400 million into Massachusetts' GDP annually. Many of the recipients, like Flores, have been living here so long that they've started families, they own businesses and they've bought homes.

And those Salvadorans are not only pumping money into communities here, but also into communities back in their home country.

Oscar Chacón is co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas, an umbrella group of immigrant advocates. He says remittances — money sent by Salvadorans living abroad, primarily in the U.S. — have largely replaced revenue from exports of sugarcane, coffee and cotton. Those cash crops took a big hit during El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"What began essentially as an act of love and support over time became the most important source of foreign revenue for El Salvador," said Chacón.

The Salvadoran Central Bank estimates that close to 16 percent of the country's gross national income in 2017 came from remittances from the U.S. totaling just over $5 million. That's up nearly 10 percent from the year before.

So, why the increase? Chacón points to the end of TPS.

"Because people in the U.S. are fearful that their days when they were able to keep sending money may be coming to an end," he says.

What's Waiting For TPS Holders In El Salvador

People in El Salvador also fear the end of TPS.

San Vicente is a small city about an hour's drive east of San Salvador. That's where Irma Flores' mother, Isabel Quintanilla, owns a bakery. The day we visit, the afternoon humidity mixes with the aroma of fresh baked bread floating in the air.

Quintanilla is wearing a red- and white-checkered apron, slicing pieces of homemade pastel de leche and semita de dulce. She stands behind steel bars while she works.

Isabel Quintanilla prepares to slice one of the many breads she offers to customers at her bakery Panaderia Pacita Quintanilla in San Vicente, El Salvador. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Isabel Quintanilla prepares to slice one of the many breads she offers to customers at her bakery Panaderia Pacita Quintanilla in San Vicente, El Salvador. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Taking off her apron, Quintanilla sits down and explains why she hopes her daughter, Flores, never moves back to El Salvador.

"Our situation here in our country isn't good. There's a lot of crime, there's extortion," Quintanilla says in Spanish. "Here, close to the center of San Vicente, is a little calmer but a little ways up there, people are killed daily. All of the businesses, almost the majority, are extorted."

Quintanilla says that at one point, she was doling out $2,500 in one day — $5,000 another day. She says young men who were collecting the money for a local gang would come into the bakery, demand the payment and threaten to kill her if she didn't pay.

Quintanilla had dreams of growing her business and recently tried opening a second location. But she says that sort of thing isn't a possibility here.

"The result was that on two occasions they assaulted me, they tied me up, they pressed their guns against me, they took everything of value, money, clothes, everything," she says, referring to young men she believes were gang members.

"So, I had to close. Because the idea was to get ahead with the business, but with the situation the way it is here, no."

The violence scares Quintanilla the most when she thinks about her daughter coming back to El Salvador. Gang members can tell by someone's looks, clothing and accent, she says, whether the new person in town has been living in the U.S. Her daughter would be an easy target.

People packed on the back of a transportation truck traveling through the center of San Vicente, El Salvador. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
People packed on the back of a transportation truck traveling through the center of San Vicente, El Salvador. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But gang violence was not part of the calculation for the Trump administration when it terminated the program. Instead, senior officials say they focused only on whether damage related to the decades-old earthquakes that gave El Salvador its TPS status had improved. That standard for renewal was much narrower than what past administrations had used.

"Immigration laws that Congress has enacted are some of the most generous in the world," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech in October 2017. He's repeatedly echoed this sentiment in multiple speeches and statements on immigration laws since then.

Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern disagrees, especially when it comes to TPS.

McGovern, who recently visited El Salvador, says the emphasis was always meant to be placed on 'Protected,' not 'Temporary.'

"I've had conversations with the secretary of Homeland Security who didn't seem to understand what TPS was. I do because I helped write the bill when I was working for Congressman Joe Moakley," said McGovern. "But the bottom line is that after all this time, these people [TPS recipients] deserve our understanding, and they deserve our compassion."

Behind a cage, Isabel Quintanilla prepares to slice on of the breads she offers to customers at her bakery Panaderia Pacita Quintanilla in San Vicente, El Salvador. She fears retaliation from local gangs that have tried extorting money from her before. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Behind a cage, Isabel Quintanilla prepares to slice on of the breads she offers to customers at her bakery Panaderia Pacita Quintanilla in San Vicente, El Salvador. She fears retaliation from local gangs that have tried extorting money from her before. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Back at the bakery in San Vicente, Quintanilla and Flores are still FaceTiming, talking about work and grandchildren. Quintanilla says she hopes her daughter will be able to fix her status and stay in Massachusetts.

Flores hopes so, too. She has until next September — when her TPS expires — to figure it out. Until then, Flores says she'll keep sending back a little money to her mom every month.

This segment aired on September 21, 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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