U.S. should own up to its role in the plight of Sal­vado­rans

Those granted haven af­ter quakes face even worse dan­ger if de­ported

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Ro­ge­lio Sáenz and Ce­clilia Men­jí­var

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has a short and se­lec­tive mem­ory.

This was in full dis­play on Jan. 8, when Krist­jen Nielsen, sec­re­tary of Home­land Se­cu­rity, an­nounced her de­ci­sion to end Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus for Sal­vado­rans.

TPS was cre­ated as part of the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1990 to pro­vide tem­po­rary re­lief to peo­ple al­ready in the United States who could not re­turn safely to coun­tries rav­aged by war or nat­u­ral and en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes. In the midst of their coun­try’s civil war, which ended in 1992, many Sal­vado­rans at that time were able to get short-term re­lief from the TPS pro­gram; this sta­tus was ter­mi­nated in 1994.

In 2001, El Sal­vador was again des­ig­nated for TPS, this time fol­low­ing two dev­as­tat­ing earth­quakes and vi­o­lent af­ter­shocks that de­voured much of that small coun­try, tak­ing nearly 1,000 lives and de­stroy­ing close to 110,000 homes. To­day over­all con­di­tions have re­mained a chal­lenge for the large ma­jor­ity of Sal­vado­rans. If any­thing, over the past 17 years the sit­u­a­tion has de­te­ri­o­rated as the post­war econ­omy and weak­ened in­sti­tu­tions have not re­cov­ered, while in­equal­ity has deep­ened.

Yet, the present con­di­tions in El Sal­vador did not come about in­de­pen­dent of U.S. ac­tions. In fact, the United States has played a key role in their mak­ing. The United States has a long his­tory of in­volve­ment in the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal af­fairs of El Sal­vador. As the civil war erupted in the coun­try in the late 1970s, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan sent sig­nif­i­cant sup­port to the ex­ist­ing right-wing gov­ern­ment dur­ing the war, to the tune of $1.5 mil­lion a day — $3.3 mil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars — in mil­i­tary aid alone. The civil war re­sulted in count­less deaths and the up­root­ing of thou­sands of peo­ple. The num­ber of Sal­vado­rans mi­grat­ing to the United States in­creased five-fold be­tween the 1970s and 1980s.

But be­cause Sal­vado­rans were flee­ing a U.S.-sup­ported right-wing dic­ta­tor­ship, very few — less than 3 per­cent — seek­ing po­lit­i­cal asy­lum be­tween 1983 and 1990 were granted this sta­tus. To par­tially rem­edy the in­con­gru­ence be­tween the thou­sands of in­di­vid­u­als flee­ing state­spon­sored ter­ror and the U.S. re­luc­tance to ex­tend refugee pro­tec­tion to them, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush cre­ated TPS and El Sal­vador was the first coun­try to be des­ig­nated for this re­lief. Im­mi­grant rights groups seek­ing for­mal recog­ni­tion for the plight of Sal­vado­ran refugees played a key role in th­ese im­mi­grants gain­ing this tem­po­rary re­lief.

Dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, through new laws that would en­able an un­prece­dented num­ber of de­por­ta­tions, many Sal­vado­rans who had come to the United States as young chil­dren were de­ported. Among th­ese were youths who had joined gangs in the United States as a way to fit into a so­ci­ety that marginal­ized them. Re­turn­ing to an es­sen­tially for­eign coun­try with few eco­nomic prospects and ex­tremely lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties, some of th­ese youth found fer­tile ground to recre­ate their net­works. El Sal­vador had been thor­oughly mil­i­ta­rized dur­ing the war years and was still awash in weapons. EThis is how the seeds for the re­cent waves of vi­o­lence in El Sal­vador were planted, the vi­o­lence that has forced thou­sands to flee the coun­try and come to the South Texas bor­der in search of po­lit­i­cal asy­lum. To this day, the U.S. gov­ern­ment does not rec­og­nize its role in creat­ing the cur­rent in­sta­bil­ity and ris­ing vi­o­lence in El Sal­vador. In­stead, it dis­tances it­self from that vi­o­lence and ad­vo­cates mil­i­tary strate­gies to ad­dress the in­sta­bil­ity it helped cre­ate.

In­deed, mem­ory is se­lec­tive and short.

Nielsen’s de­ci­sion means that there are now about 200,000 Sal­vado­rans who will be­come un­doc­u­mented and run the risk of de­por­ta­tion if they do not re­turn to El Sal­vador by Sept. 9, 2019. They are be­ing thrown to the wind to find their fate in a coun­try that can­not sup­port this mas­sive level of new ar­rivals. In the mix, of course, is the un­cer­tain fu­ture of their nearly 193,000 U.S.-born chil­dren.

The im­pact of the ter­mi­na­tion of TPS des­ig­na­tion for Sal­vado­rans hits close to home. Texas with more than 36,000 Sal­vado­rans with TPS des­ig­na­tion has the sec­ond largest pop­u­la­tion be­hind Cal­i­for­nia. Among U.S. cities, Hous­ton has the third largest pop­u­la­tion of im­pacted Sal­vado­rans with 19,000 los­ing their TPS des­ig­na­tion, fol­lowed by Dal­las with ap­prox­i­mately 10,000.

Th­ese in­di­vid­u­als are not strangers. They are our fam­ily, friends, co­work­ers and fel­low con­gre­gants who have lived here, on av­er­age, for 20 years. They have es­tab­lished deep roots in this coun­try and their com­mu­ni­ties. Tak­ing this sta­tus away de­stroys their worlds and sti­fles their chil­dren’s fu­ture. It harms their com­mu­ni­ties in this coun­try, while also am­pli­fy­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity in El Sal­vador.

Rather than tak­ing away their tem­po­rary le­gal sta­tus, th­ese Sal­vado­rans should be granted per­ma­nent le­gal sta­tus. This act would for­mally rec­og­nize their deep roots in this na­tion, but it would also be­gin to re­dress for the havoc cre­ated by decades of U.S. pol­icy in El Sal­vador.

Fred Ramos / New York Times

San Sal­vador, along with the rest of El Sal­vador, is brac­ing for the re­turn of as many as 200,000 Sal­vado­rans who have been liv­ing in the United States.

Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Im­ages

Mem­bers of XIII Car­a­van of Cen­tral Amer­i­can Moth­ers’ “4,000 Kilo­me­ters of Search, Re­sis­tance and Hope” hold Sal­vado­ran flags at a protest in front of the U.S. Em­bassy in Mex­ico City last month.

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