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Salvadoran immigrants on LI brace for decision on their status

Carlos Reyes, 40, a Salvadoran immigrant who lives

Carlos Reyes, 40, a Salvadoran immigrant who lives in Central Islip, attended a Dec. 6 rally near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., supporting TPS and legislation allowing 'Dreamers' to legally live permanently in the United States. Credit: Newsday / David Olson

A deadline is looming for more than 200,000 mostly adult Salvadoran immigrants who have been living in the United States with lawful status for more than a decade.

The Trump administration will decide in January whether they will get an extension of the Temporary Protected Status that grants them work permits, allowing them to hold jobs, get driver’s licenses and attend school.

The decision is likely to have a significant impact on Long Island, where Salvadorans make up the largest immigrant group, though it’s not known exactly how many in the region are recipients of what’s known by the shorthand “TPS.”

The expected announcement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is stoking fears among Salvadorans of being sent back to a poor country that is wracked by violence linked to criminal gangs.

“There is a lot of worry. Everyone is going around full of anxiety, wondering what the New Year will bring,” said Yanira Chacón López, an outreach worker at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Westbury.

If Salvadorans lose that protection, “it would be devastating” for many on Long Island, Chacón López said, including the American children of those immigrants. “There won’t be enough uncles and aunts, godmothers and cousins to take care of them if their parents have to leave.”

The status has been typically granted by presidents to immigrants from countries in crisis due to natural disasters, famine or war. However, under President Donald Trump, TPS has been gradually curtailed, ending protection from deportation for various groups.

Haitians and Nicaraguans were told last month that their TPS will end in 2019. Hondurans got a short extension pending further revision of their status until July 2018. Guineans, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans lost the status in May 2017. Sudanese immigrants will lose TPS in November 2018.

Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group under review, after being granted TPS in 2001 when their country was struck by earthquakes. Their status expires in March and could be extended or terminated 60 days before the due date.

The administration has said it is examining country conditions for those nations to determine if they continue to meet program guidelines.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said 263,282 Salvadorans had TPS as of the end of 2016, but research from other organizations indicates that the number could have dropped as some immigrants exit the program every year, in some cases by securing permanent status.

Sharon Scheidhauer, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency that administers TPS, said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is expected to make an announcement “no later than early to mid-January.”.

“Whether a country’s TPS designation is extended or terminated is based on a review of whether the statutory requirements supporting the designation continue to be met,” Scheidhauer said.

In El Salvador’s case, she added, Nielsen will consider whether there remains “a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions” due to environmental disasters while studying whether “El Salvador is unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return to El Salvador of aliens who are nationals” of that country.

Although immigrant and human rights advocates believe the United States should consider the poor living conditions resulting from poverty and violence in designated countries, immigration enforcement proponents have often criticized the extension of what is meant to be “temporary” relief, as immigrants from El Salvador have seen their status renewed over the past 16 years.

“That really does extend the limits of what temporary ought to mean,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group in Washington that favors strict enforcement of immigration law. “The intent was to allow people whose countries were affected by some unforeseen man-made or Act-of-God disaster to stay here in the immediate aftermath.”

David Sperling, an immigration lawyer with his main office in Central Islip, said keeping Salvadorans in a status that has to be constantly renewed is not ideal for the community either, even as he believes those immigrants have been vetted and are deserving of staying here for the long term.

“It is a temporary protected status . . . but the successive administrations just rubber-stamped, you know, the renewals, so every 12 months or 18 months it was renewed, renewed,” leaving people here for more than a decade without permanent legal residency. “They’ve been working, they’ve been paying their taxes and now it sounds really cruel for someone to come and yank the rug out from them.”

Proposals in Congress seeking permanent status for those holding TPS haven’t been debated and face an uphill battle, as current rules require supermajority support in the Senate to adjust the status of TPS recipients.

The impact of the program’s termination could be significant in this region. More than 16,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients live in New York, according to an analysis by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a Catholic think tank on immigration issues.

Salvadorans have concentrated in Nassau and Suffolk counties over the past three decades. The center’s study indicates most Salvadorans with TPS are in the labor force, with many workers concentrated in the construction, restaurant and landscaping industries.

“They’ve built families here. Many of them own homes, and tearing them away from the communities that they’ve lived in is a cruel thing to do and completely unnecessary,” said Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, an immigrant advocacy in Hempstead and Brentwood. “The sudden deprivation of thousands of workers from our economy, the loss of the ability to pay mortgages by thousands of people, is going to hurt the Long Island economy tremendously” if the program ends.

Some of those Long Island immigrants joined a trip to Washington in early December to try to make their plight known.

Among them was Carlos Reyes, 40, a Salvadoran immigrant who lives in Central Islip and has had TPS since 2001. He came to the United States illegally in 1994. He said TPS allowed him to obtain a good union job as a bus driver. He’s worried about losing everything if TPS for Salvadorans expires.

He still doesn’t know what he’d do without the status.

“I ask myself that and I still don’t have an answer,” he said. “One thing I know is I’m going to lose my job, and if I don’t have a job, what can I do? I don’t want to go there [to El Salvador] but I won’t be able to stay here . . . There’s Canada, but I don’t know anything about Canada. My life and everything is here.”

With David Olson

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