Fear­ful of the fu­ture

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By John Fritze

WASH­ING­TON ox­ana 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 short­term 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

R| Rox­ana Ro­das 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-yearold 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 na­tional dis­as­ter in their home coun­tries.

“It’s a re­lief to be here, and it’s a re­lief I never felt in El Salvador.”

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 Feb. 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

TPS des­ig­na­tions

The United States cur­rently grants Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus to na­tion­als from 10 coun­tries. 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-yearold 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 check whether they qual­ify for some other form of re­lief.

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.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BALTIMORE SUN

Rox­ana Ro­das is one of about 20,000 Sal­vado­rans liv­ing in Mary­land un­der Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus. There are about 263,000 from the coun­try who live in the United States un­der the pro­gram, more than the other nine cur­rently des­ig­nated coun­tries com­bined.

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