New York, USA – Members of the Salvadoran community in the US have expressed their “devastation” after President Donald Trump‘s government said it would stop providing legal status and the ability to work to some 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador.
The move, announced on Monday by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), gave Salvadoran holders of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) until September 9, 2019, to leave or find a legal way to stay in the country.
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The US government had originally granted Salvadorans special protection status after two earthquakes killed nearly 8,000 people in 2001.
“Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the Secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist,” the DHS said in a statement.
Rosa Cecilia Martinez, originally from El Congo in El Salvador, said she had no words to describe her feelings upon hearing the news.
“I don’t know how to express how devastating this is,” Martinez, a single mother of two, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s devastating to know we only have 18 months left in the country.”
In its statement, the DHS also said it had determined that El Salvador could successfully reintegrate its nationals.
However, TPS holders said the Central American country was not ready to receive the thousands of families that would be forced to return.
“Our country is in chaos,” said Martinez, who migrated to the US in 1998 aged 16 and received temporary legal protection from deportation under TPS in 2001.
“The schools are saturated and there is insecurity. How are they going to receive the thousands of families and give us education, healthcare and security to us and our children?”
El Salvador, home to about six million, is often described as one of the world’s deadliest countries. In 2016, it averaged 14.4 murders a day.
High levels of insecurity, coupled with education challenges and limited employment opportunities, lead large numbers of people to consider migrating elsewhere.
“Three hundred people leave El Salvador daily as migrants in search of a better future,” argued Edwin Murillo, who lives in the US state of Texas but is originally from San Salvador.
“If 300 people are leaving daily, because the living conditions are not suitable, then how is it possible that the Trump administration has decided to force thousands of Salvadorans to return?” Murillo, a member of the National TPS Alliance, a group lobbying US Congress to provide immigrants with a pathway to permanent residency, told Al Jazeera.
“In terms of demographics, work and education, El Salvador is not prepared to receive our families,” he added, calling the DHS’s move an “unfair decision” which “overlooked Salvadorans’ contributions to this country”.
‘There is nothing’
During his election campaign, Trump had promised to overturn some of the immigration policies of his predecessors.
The DHS’s move on Monday came months after his administration had also eliminated special protection status for thousands of Haitian and Nicaraguan TPS recipients.
Salvadorans were until recently the largest immigrant group protected under the programme.
Norma Portos, an immigration lawyer who has worked with Salvadoran TPS holders living in New York, said the decision came down to determining that the original conditions for providing the temporary legal residency and deportation relief were no longer valid.
“The Trump administration claims it has done all the necessary studies and assessments to determine it is no longer necessary to renew TPS status for Salvadoran immigrants. But this determination remains relative because we can see that living conditions remain poor in El Salvador,” Portos told Al Jazeera.
“Perhaps the Salvadoran government has been able to recover from the 2001 earthquake, but it is not ready to receive its nationals because of the violence and insecurity in the country,” she added.
As for Martinez, she said she was starting to think about returning to El Congo in the wake of Monday’s announcement.
Were she forced to return, Martinez said that she would leave her two children behind.
“It is very dangerous in my hometown,” she said.
“If I return to El Congo, my life would plummet into uncertainty. There is no work, there is no security, there is nothing.”