Im­mi­grant forced to leave bids U.S. grate­ful good­bye

El Sal­vador na­tive los­ing le­gal sta­tus af­ter 20 years

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NATION & WORLD - BY LUIS ALONSO LUGO

WASHINGTON — Nil­son Ca­nenguez is fac­ing the prospect of be­ing forced to re­turn to his na­tive El Sal­vador in the com­ing months af­ter nearly 20 years in the U.S. But he’s not go­ing home empty-handed — or bit­ter.

The father of three, who came to this coun­try with vir­tu­ally noth­ing, is leav­ing as the owner of a con­struc­tion busi­ness with dozens of em­ploy­ees and a nest egg large enough to buy two prop­er­ties in his home­land and semi-re­tire at 45.

“I was poor be­fore I came here,” said Ca­nenguez, a prom­i­nent busi­ness­man in the Washington area’s sub­stan­tial Sal­vado­ran com­mu­nity. “Now, it’s not like I’m a mil­lion­aire, but I’m com­fort­able. I live way bet­ter than I used to.”

He is one of about 400,000 peo­ple from a hand­ful of trou­bled coun­tries whose tem­po­rary le­gal res­i­dency has been ended by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has ar­gued the Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus pro­gram, or TPS, that let them stay was never meant to be per­ma­nent de­spite re­peated ex­ten­sions. Ca­nenguez’s case is an ex­am­ple of how the pro­gram has not only pro­vided a life­line to im­mi­grants but al­lowed some to pros­per.

The busi­ness­man would pre­fer to stay, of course. But he said he will be ready to

head back to El Sal­vador a month ahead of the Septem­ber 2019 dead­line.

“I have no re­sent­ment to­ward the United States or this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he said. “The laws are there and must be abided.”

The end of the TPS, which ap­plies to three Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries, along with Haiti, Nepal and Su­dan, has gen­er­ated panic and de­spair among many im­mi­grant fam­i­lies. Some are fran­ti­cally con­sult­ing with lawyers to find a le­gal way to stay, while oth­ers like Noe Duarte, a 41-year-old con­struc­tion worker from El Sal­vador, are qui­etly mak­ing plans to try to stay with­out le­gal res­i­dency.

“I don’t say El Sal­vador is not fine, but I don’t have any­thing there. My whole life is here,” said Duarte, who is hop­ing to live in the shad­ows un­til the po­lit­i­cal winds change and he is al­lowed to stay. “Our only choice is to run and hide.”

Ca­nenguez said he wouldn’t even con­sider try­ing to stay in the U.S. with­out le­gal res­i­dency at this point in his life.

“I can’t be a prisoner in the coun­try,” he said dur­ing in­ter­views at his of­fice and the home in the Mary­land suburbs he bought in 2004.

Jose Campos, pres­i­dent of the Sal­vado­ran Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce of the Washington area, said Ca­nenguez is an in­spi­ra­tion to many in their com­mu­nity.

“He is the def­i­ni­tion of the Amer­i­can dream,” Campos said.

Ca­nenguez also is an ex­am­ple of how a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of those af­fected by the loss of the TPS are rel­a­tively af­flu­ent or have highly skilled jobs.

Campos said the over­all im­pact of the loss of the pro­gram on the Sal­vado­ran com­mu­nity will be sig­nif­i­cant. About 10 per­cent of the busi­ness cham­ber’s 200 mem­bers are los­ing their sta­tus un­der the pro­gram.

A May 2017 study by a Univer­sity of Kansas re­searcher found that the vast ma­jor­ity of TPS hold­ers — 94 per­cent of men and 82 per­cent of women — were work­ing; about 30 per­cent lived in their own home; about 10 per­cent were self-em­ployed; and half had fur­thered their ed­u­ca­tion while in the U.S.

“The idea that TPS hold­ers are im­mi­grants in poverty is wrong,” said Ce­cilia Men­ji­var, the au­thor of the study. “They have been here long, they have long ex­pe­ri­ence, and many are con­sid­ered high-skilled work­ers.”

Ca­nenguez grew up in San Jose El Naranjo, a town north­west of El Sal­vador’s cap­i­tal where his par­ents moved to avoid the vi­o­lence of the civil war that wracked the coun­try from 1980-92. He made it through high school and then headed north. With the help of a smug­gler, he crossed the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, head­ing first to Los An­ge­les and then to Washington.

He spoke al­most no English — and still strug­gles with the lan­guage — but quickly man­aged to find work in con­struc­tion. He le­gal­ized his sta­tus when Washington des­ig­nated peo­ple from El Sal­vador as el­i­gi­ble for TPS be­cause of a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake in Jan­uary 2001, and his wife and three chil­dren joined him in the U.S.

The pro­gram al­lows peo­ple from the el­i­gi­ble coun­tries to work in the U.S. It does not lead to le­gal res­i­dency, but peo­ple who qual­ify can pe­ti­tion un­der other tracks to­ward res­i­dency, some­thing Ca­nenguez said he pur­sued with six im­mi­gra­tion lawyers at a cost of around $60,000, with­out suc­cess.

Ca­nenguez held a va­ri­ety of con­struc­tion jobs, work­ing on the re­build­ing of the Pen­tagon af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks and on the U.S. Capi­tol Vis­i­tor Cen­ter in 2003. He even­tu­ally raised enough money to start his own con­struc­tion busi­ness, which now em­ploys about 250 peo­ple near Andrews Air Force Base in Mary­land.

The broad-shoul­dered busi­ness­man re­al­ized he might have to leave when Trump was elected. In the en­su­ing months, he started build­ing two prop­er­ties back in El Sal­vador and has be­gun mak­ing plans to hold his 25th wed­ding an­niver­sary there af­ter he and his wife move back. His three adult chil­dren will take over the op­er­a­tions of his con­struc­tion com­pany. One daugh­ter has le­gal res­i­dency through mar­riage, while an­other daugh­ter and his son are “Dream­ers,” who have de­ferred de­por­ta­tion sta­tus, a pro­gram the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to end.

When he gets back to El Sal­vador, he will ap­ply for a visa and see if he can re­turn. But, if not, Ca­nenguez said he will see what eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties he can find in his home­land or sim­ply en­joy his re­tire­ment sooner than planned.“I will al­ways re­spect and ad­mire the United States for the op­por­tu­ni­ties that it gave us,” he said.


Nil­son Ca­nenguez, a con­struc­tion com­pany owner who is on the Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus pro­gram, hugs his daugh­ter May­be­lin as his wife, Ju­dit, looks on at their home in Morn­ing­side, Md.

Sal­vado­ran na­tive Nil­son Ca­nenguez started a con­struc­tion firm in the U.S.

Ca­nenguez dis­plays a busi­ness award at his of­fice near Andrews Air Force Base in Mary­land. When

he and his wife re­turn to El Sal­vador, their three chil­dren

will op­er­ate his busi­ness.


Nil­son Ca­nenguez holds hands with his wife, Ju­dit, as their daugh­ter May­be­lin looks on in their home in Morn­ing­side, Md. The cou­ple are re­turn­ing to their na­tive El Sal­vador be­fore their tem­po­rary le­gal res­i­dency ends. Their three chil­dren will stay be­hind.

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