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Official: U.S. ending immigration protection for Salvadorans

El Salvador is the fourth country whose citizens have lost Temporary Protected Status under President Donald Trump.

Minda Hernandez at a news conference in Manhattan

Minda Hernandez at a news conference in Manhattan on Jan. 8, 2018, as immigrants, allies and officials demand that the Department of Homeland Security extend Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans. Photo Credit: Bryan R. Smith / Getty Images

The Trump administration Monday terminated a designation shielding Salvadoran immigrants from deportation, eventually forcing thousands of Long Island residents from El Salvador to either leave, seek lawful residency or fall into illegal status.

Advocates and Salvadoran immigrants on Long Island and across the country criticized the decision, but it was not a surprise.

More than 260,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the United States are under Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.

The White House has curtailed TPS participation in the past year, with Haitians and Nicaraguans most recently being told they will no longer be eligible for the designation. The status is granted as a form of humanitarian relief to immigrants from countries in crisis due to war, natural disaster or other extraordinary conditions, giving them a chance to live, work and study in the United States under renewable permits.

Salvadorans, granted TPS after earthquakes in their Central American homeland in 2001, make up the largest group under the designation in the United States, as of October, according to government figures. Salvadorans are the largest immigrant community on Long Island.

The administration granted an 18-month delay of the deadline, until Sept. 9, 2019, so Salvadorans under TPS can make arrangements to depart or apply for other statuses, if they qualify. All who want to remain until September of next year must reapply for an extension before their current permits expire in March.

“The decision to terminate TPS for El Salvador was made after an interagency review process that considered country conditions and the ability of the country to receive returning citizens,” said a senior administration official during a Monday morning briefing by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Rampant violence in the United States linked to criminal gangs in El Salvador, was not a factor in the designation’s review, according to Trump administration officials, who asked not to be named. Salvadoran immigrants said they fear returning to their homeland because of gangs, including the notorious MS-13, and not just to escape the country’s poverty and the destruction left by the earthquakes.

“We are sad, very sad because of the decision,” said Inmaculada Oliva, 36, who lives in Port Jefferson with her husband and three daughters, one 15 and 13-year-old twins.

Her husband also has TPS and their daughters are U.S. citizens. She does the cleaning at an elderly care facility and her husband works in maintenance at a golf course.

Going back to El Salvador would be their last resort, Oliva said, adding she is terrified of sending her daughters to schools amid gang turf wars.

“Taking them there would ruin my daughters’ future,” she said.

It would also mean giving up the house she and her husband bought, and the comforts and relative safety of life on Long Island.

“I am getting all teary-eyed” thinking about it, Oliva said.

Patrick Young, program director at the nonprofit Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood, said previous administrations had considered “the conditions of chaotic violence in El Salvador” when they extended TPS.

“Anyone who knows anything about El Salvador knows that it has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world and you are now going to be deporting people who have lived in this country without any criminal background, for the last 20 years on average, to a country where their lives will be in grave danger,” Young said.

Young and other advocates are also concerned about the impact of the decision on local economies like Long Island’s and the fate of U.S. citizen children of affected families. Some TPS designates may just choose to stay past the deadline, he said.

“Many will go from being productive taxpaying homeowners to standing in street corners waiting for whatever job they can get in landscaping,” Young said, “. . . and the children of these folks who have lost their status will now fall into the care of the government, instead of the care of their parents.”

Supporters of restrictive immigration policies have long maintained the application of TPS has been stretched too far.

In a statement Monday, Roy Beck, of Numbers USA, a group in Washington, D.C. focused on reducing immigration into the U.S., called the decision “a major step toward” in saving the [TPS] program “for future emergencies.”

He added: “The past practice of allowing foreign nationals to remain in the United States long after an initial emergency in their home countries has ended has undermined the integrity of the program and essentially made the ‘temporary’ protected status a front operation for backdoor permanent immigration.”

The rationale for Monday’s decision, according to Trump administration officials, was that El Salvador has recovered since the earthquakes, thanks in part to aid from the U.S. government. The country has been able to accommodate returning nationals deported as part of enforcement efforts, the administration said.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen made the determination after “an extensive outreach campaign” to federal government officials, the Salvadoran government and other partners, including community groups, the official said.

“The statutory conditions supporting El Salvador’s TPS designation on the basis of an environmental disaster, specifically the devastation caused by major earthquakes in 2001, no longer exist,” the official said.

More than 16,000 Salvadoran TPS recipients live in New York, according to the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a Catholic think tank.

Among them, Rosa Escobar, a Westbury homeowner and mother of five who works cleaning at the Roosevelt Field mall. Her husband also has TPS.

“We are needed here,” said Escobar, 48. “I haven’t seen many Americans carrying around shovels and brooms” to take the jobs she and other temporary-status workers hold.

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