WASHINGTON — Roxana Rodas was living in the United States 16 years ago when a series of earthquakes struck her native El Salvador.
She didn’t feel the ground shake, but the turmoil in her homeland still changed her life.
As aftershocks rocked the Central American country, President George W. Bush’s administration granted Salvadorans a short-term haven in the United States, allowing them to stay under Temporary Protected Status designation.
Now members of that community — including thousands who, like Rodas, settled in Maryland after entering the country illegally — fear the Trump administration is preparing to revoke that status next year and bring their “temporary” stay to an end.
“It’s a relief to be here, and it’s a relief I never felt in El Salvador,” Rodas, a 43-year-old mother of three in Baltimore County, told The Baltimore Sun through an interpreter. “But now, I’m very nervous and very scared.”
Nearly 437,000 foreign nationals are benefiting from Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. The 27-year-old program, approved by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush, shields eligible immigrants from deportation during periods of conflict or natural disaster in their home countries.
While the strife continues, immigrants are allowed to live, work and build families in the United States.
Unlike asylum, TPS is intended to apply only temporarily. Those who benefit are ineligible for permanent residence or citizenship.
The Department of Homeland Security under President Donald J. Trump said Monday it would end TPS for 5,300 Nicaraguan nationals who have been living in the United States since 1998.
The decision, which requires those Nicaraguans to leave by 2019, has alarmed Salvadorans, Haitians, and others who are in the country under similar protection.
Maryland is home to the fourth-largest community of Salvadorans with TPS in the nation — some 20,000 people — according to the New York-based Center for Migration Studies. Most are concentrated in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Nationally, about 263,000 Salvadorans have benefited since 2001 –- more than the other nine currently designated countries combined.
The program applies to foreign nationals who are living in the United States on the date the Department of Homeland Security declares TPS for their country. Immigrants who arrive after the declaration are not eligible.
Initial protection can be granted for six to 18 months and then extended indefinitely. The status is usually granted for conflict or disasters, but the Obama administration also approved TPS for immigrants from West African nations during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Rodas described how she felt when she received TPS: “Freedom.”
“I felt liberated to go and apply to get a driver’s license; I felt liberated to drive and I felt liberated to work,” Rodas said. “I knew that it was only something temporary, but it was a relief to have some kind of status.”
Rodas said she was a victim of domestic violence in El Salvador. She fled her ex-husband and her country just months before the earthquakes.
Asked about her journey across the border, she laughed bitterly. It was “very difficult,” she said.
Critics of TPS say the system is being abused. They ask why a decades-old earthquake or hurricane is being used to justify allowing people — many of whom came to the country illegally — to stay in the United States.
The designations for Hondurans and Nicaraguans have both been extended for nearly two decades.
“The ‘T’ in TPS stands for ‘temporary,’” said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington group that wants tighter controls on immigration. “The bottom line is there has to be some kind of finality to this.”
El Salvador, Mehlman said, “wasn’t a Garden of Eden before the earthquake. It clearly isn’t now. But that can’t be the standard.”
The TPS designation provides a blanket protection to Salvadorans who entered the United States before February 13, 2001. Asylum, by contrast, is granted on a case-by-case basis.
Protection for Salvadorans was last extended in 2016. At the time, President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security cited “substantial … disruption of living conditions” caused by the earthquakes.
The country, the Department of Homeland Security wrote then, “remains unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return of its nationals.”
El Salvador, a nation of 6 million wedged between Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, ranks among the world’s most violent places. A civil war from 1979 to 1992, which the United States helped to fund with billions in military aid, weakened the country’s criminal justice system, allowing gangs to proliferate.
The Obama administration extended the TPS designation for El Salvador to March 2018. Trump’s Department of Homeland Security will announce its decision in early January.
Under Bush and Obama, the department found that the impact from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 continued to complicate the return of Nicaraguans. But under Trump, the department reached a different conclusion on Monday, asserting those conditions “no longer exist.”
Trump promised during his campaign last year not only to crack down on illegal immigration but also to limit the number of refugees the United States would accept. He has canceled the Obama program that allowed immigrants brought to the country as children to stay and work in the United States. And he has attempted to impose a ban on the entry of people from several nations made up mostly of Muslims.
But there appears to be at least some internal debate within the administration over TPS.
While acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke ended the status for Nicaraguans, she missed a deadline for canceling the status for Hondurans, triggering an automatic six-month extension.
Kirstjen Nielsen — Trump's nominee to lead the department — did not face questions about the issue during her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Homeland Security officials have not signaled their intentions.
Department spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton said determinations “are made based on conditions on the ground in each individual country,” and no decision for El Salvador had been reached.
Those who support extending TPS for Central Americans say it should be no surprise that it takes years for countries like El Salvador and Honduras — among the poorest and least developed nations in the hemisphere — to recover from natural disasters.
“'Temporary' is relative,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, based in Silver Spring.
“If you go up to New Jersey,” she said, “you’re still going to see the effects of [Superstorm] Sandy,” which struck in 2012. “After [Hurricane] Harvey, what we heard in the news repeatedly was that this was going to take 10 years to fix.
“This is the United States, and we’re talking about 10 years for Harvey.”
It’s not just immigrant advocates and liberals who favor extending TPS for Salvadorans. Support has also come from business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is concerned about losing workers.
Labor force participation among TPS recipients from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti is as high as 88 percent, according to the Center for Migration Studies. Because they are permitted to work, many TPS beneficiaries have established careers or built businesses here.
“We’re talking about 300,000 people who could be forced to leave the United States,” said Jonathan S. Greene, an immigration attorney in Howard County. “That would have a tremendous impact on employers who have hired people with TPS.
“I can see a lot of legal challenges to this.”
Juan Cortez was 23 years old when he left what he described as a lethal and desperate environment in El Salvador.
He crossed the border illegally in 1994 and found work — first as a dishwasher, and then as a cook.
When Salvadorans were granted TPS in 2001, he came out of the shadows.
Within a few years, he bought a dump truck. And then another. Now the 47-year-old Montgomery County man runs a trucking business, owns two homes and has a daughter in law school.
"I work hard — I work day and night," Cortez said. "And I pay my taxes."
When he learned last week that the Trump administration revoked TPS for Nicaraguans, he cried.
"If I lose my TPS, I lose my driver’s license. If I lose my driver’s license, I lose my company. And if I lose my company, I lose my house."
The Department of Homeland Security has wide discretion to determine whether TPS should be granted, extended or revoked. Congress can also make the designation.
If the designation were ended, it is not clear that beneficiaries such as Cortez would have much legal recourse.
CASA has been organizing on TPS for years. The Maryland-based immigrant advocacy group is encouraging beneficiaries to apply for renewals. In cases where TPS is revoked, the group advises immigrants to schedule legal screenings to double check whether they qualify for some other form of relief.
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But advocates say that will not help the majority of beneficiaries who have TPS.
"We're continuing to push Congress to pass a legislative solution," said Elizabeth Alex, senior director of organizing for CASA. "That's the No. 1 thing that we're doing.”
Congress has been unable to advance far less controversial legislation. Though there is bipartisan support to reauthorize the DACA program for young immigrants that Trump discontinued in September, there is not yet a clear path for how to do that.
For her part, Rodas said she feels “very fortunate to be here.”
“It’s a beautiful thing being in this country because I feel free and secure,” she said.
And If she were forced to decide whether to return to El Salvador or return to the shadows in the United States?
“I can’t say what I would do.”