WASHINGTON — Thousands of Marylanders from El Salvador who have been living in the country legally for years could face deportation next fall after the Trump administration announced Monday it will revoke their protected status.
Salvadorans became the fourth group of immigrants in the past year to lose Temporary Protected Status, granted to those whose homelands are beset by natural disaster or war. Nearly 200,000 Salvadorans benefited, a higher number than from any other country.
Maryland is home to the fourth-largest community of Salvadorans with TPS in the nation — about 20,000 people — according to the New York-based Center for Migration Studies. Most live in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Anxiety in the community has been running high for weeks.
Juan Rodriguez wept as he recalled the day in 2001 when President George W. Bush granted the designation following a series of devastating earthquakes in the Central American country.
“I’m going to lose everything,” the 48-year-old Gaithersburg man said Monday. “It hurts to hear what’s going on.”
In a decision that had been widely anticipated, the Department of Homeland Security said it would end Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans on Sept. 9, 2019, because the conditions that led to the original designation no longer applied.
The Trump administration has also ended the designation for Nicaraguans, Haitians and Sudanese. It has offered short-term extensions for Hondurans and South Sudanese.
“Schools and hospitals damaged by the earthquakes have been reconstructed and repaired, homes have been rebuilt, and money has been provided for water and sanitation and to repair earthquake damaged roads and other infrastructure,” the department said in a statement.
“The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exist[s].”
The announcement will give beneficiaries nearly two years to prepare, but their options at the end of that window will be limited. Unless Congress intervenes, they will be required to leave the United States.
Some are expected to stay without documentation — and run the risk of deportation.
Democrats condemned the decision. Critics said the status has been granted to Salvadorans for so long that families have established themselves in the United States. Many have built careers or businesses in the country, they said, and have become part of the community.
“Instilling fear in vulnerable children and families should not be the American way,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It isn’t right and it runs counter to the American values that built this great nation.”
Gustavo Torres is the executive director of CASA, the region's largest advocacy group for immigrants.
"The cancellation of Salvadoran TPS doesn’t make sense economically or morally,” he said.
He noted the large concentration of the community around Washington: “We are going to be particularly hard hit."
Critics of the program say it has been abused for years. They ask why a decades-old earthquake or hurricane should be used to justify allowing people — many of whom came to the country illegally — to stay in the United States indefinitely.
Roy Beck is president of NumbersUSA, an advocacy group that supports limits on immigration. By ending Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans, he said, the Trump administration is “saving” the program so it can be used for future emergencies.
“The past practice of allowing foreign nationals to remain in the United States long after an initial emergency in their home countries has …undermined the integrity of the program and essentially made the ‘temporary’ protected status a front operation for backdoor permanent immigration,” he said.
Lawmakers are negotiating with the White House over another immigration program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That program, created by President Barack Obama, shielded people who were brought to the country illegally as children — the so-called Dreamers — from deportation.
There appears to be some bipartisan support for allowing that program to continue in exchange for increased border security and tighter rules on allowing relatives of legal immigrants to enter the United States.
It’s not yet clear how that debate might affect Temporary Protected Status. The 27-year-old program was approved by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush.
The program applies to foreign nationals who are living in the United States on the date the Department of Homeland Security applies the designation. Immigrants who arrive after the declaration are not eligible.
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Unlike asylum, TPS is intended to apply only temporarily.
Those who benefit are ineligible for permanent residence or citizenship, but they are shielded from deportation and are allowed to work legally.
That’s exactly what Rodriguez did. After coming to the country in 1997, Rodriguez followed a girlfriend — who would later become his wife — to Maryland. He has worked as a custodian.
Rodriguez said he and other Salvadorans don’t want to return home because the gangs there are “really strong.”
El Salvador has rebuilt since the earthquakes, but it remains a dangerous country. Wedged between Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, it ranks among the world’s most violent places. A 13-year civil war — the Carter and Reagan administrations backed the anti-communist junta that seized power in 1979 — weakened the country’s criminal justice system, allowing gangs to proliferate.
Many of those gangs, including MS-13, were born among immigrant communities in Los Angeles and then migrated or were deported back to Central America.
“I love this county,” Rodriguez said. “There are people who have done terrorism and have done harm, but that’s not what I’m about. We’re here to work and to provide for our family.”