Boston’s politicos assured local immigrants from El Salvador that they have the support of city and state leaders at a press conference the day after the Trump administration announced the end of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador in the US.
The program was initiated in 2001 after two devastating earthquakes struck the country, and it had been renewed 11 times during the Bush and Obama administrations.
“It wasn’t a surprise because they had already eliminated TPS for Haitians and South Sudanese,” said Patricia Montes, Executive Director of Centro Presente, an immigrant advocacy organization.
Montes joined others, including union janitors from 32BJ SEIU, at a press conference at City Hall last week. Centro Presente, an East Boston-based advocacy group, will be holding legal clinics in partnership with community organizations to help El Salvadorans figure out what their legal options are.
El Salvador, which has been deemed the most dangerous country that isn’t a war zone, had 104 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, for a murder toll of 6,657. The 6,000 Salvadorans with TPS in Mass will have 18 months to self-deport or acquire legal status through a green card. The irony of the situation was not lost on several of the speakers, some of whom referred to US political involvement in El Salvador.
During the 1980s, the US spent billions of dollars supporting the Salvadoran government’s efforts against an insurgency led by the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is a former guerrilla commander of the FMLN. Cerén’s government has maintained close ties with the US, accepting $72.7 million in assistance from Congress in FY 2017. Trump, meanwhile, has gutted protections for Salvadorans, hypocritically promised to make MS-13 a top priority, and dispatched Attorney General Jeff Sessions to El Salvador last July to participate in the so-called Organized Crime Drug Enforcement task forces.
What the Trump administration appears to have forgotten is that MS-13’s roots are in the streets of Los Angeles. In the 1980s, a group of Salvadorans began the gang after leaving their country, which was embroiled in 12 years of civil war. Since then, the group has spread widely, rising as a proctor of drug trade across the Americas. Knowing that history, Mass Salvadorans are worried about the dangers they can face upon return to the country.
Carolina Mata is a recipient of TPS and escaped El Salvador in 1998 after her father was assassinated. Protected status has made life easier for Mata. “I found a stable job, got my driver’s license, and was able to take care of my children,” she said. As a single mother, Mata supports 10-year-old daughter, Gabriella, and her son who attends Fitchburg State College, while working in a plastics factory.
Almost $400 million would be lost from the Mass annual GDP if Salvadorans leave, according to a study from the Center for American Progress.
In Revere, an El Salvadoran woman is facing eviction from her place of business on top of deciding what she must do in light of the Trump administration’s TPS decision. Rosa Vigil, 42, runs Yamileth Salon, a hair studio that she has owned for 14 of the 18 years she has been in this country. Last June, her former building owner sold to an investment group, leaving the future unclear for her business. “I’m hoping pressure can be put on this owner by locals,” she said. “I pay my rent on time, and this is my livelihood.”
Vigil came to the US 18 years ago to escape violence in El Salvador. Her sister has successfully applied for asylum. But Vigil was counting on TPS, which has been renewed several times by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, to remain here. She is unsure of what she will do in the face of losing her protected status, but she is focusing on the issue at hand—keeping her salon open. “As long as my body holds out,” she said, “I plan on working here. I can’t have any peace now.”
Though Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and other politicians said they’d pressure Congress to rethink the TPS policy reversal, the news is still a shock to many El Salvadorans, a great deal of whom have been in the US for nearly two decades. Doris Landaverde, 38, moved to the US when she was 20 to earn enough money to pay for medical bills for herself and her mother, who has a chronic medical condition. She’s worried that if she moves back to El Salvador, she and her three daughters will be in an unfamiliar, dangerous country.
“I think the violence in the country would impact them,” said Landaverde, a janitor at Harvard University who came to City Hall with fellow SEIU workers.
Others remain hopeful. Elmer Vivas Portillo, 19, is a sophomore at Harvard University, where he studies sociology. He spoke at the TPS event in support of his mother, Midonia Portillo, who is a beneficiary of TPS, and told the Dig that there are benefits to living in Cambridge, in a community where his family feels supported. “Last summer, Cambridge passed a resolution to be a sanctuary city,” he said. He thinks the next steps are to educate communities about how the news will impact their El Salvadoran neighbors.
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.