Intipuca, El Salvador – On the drive into Intipuca, a town of roughly 7,500 people in eastern El Salvador, a billboard of a middle-aged man with a wide-brimmed hat reads: “At Agricultural Bank, I receive my remittances on time and securely.”
His smile serves as a welcome sign to the small town just a short drive from the coastline.
Intipuca runs on remittances, but after the United States recently announced the end to temporary protected status – also known as TPS – for Salvadorans, anxiety is high in the town.
“If there were no more remittances to Intipuca, it would be chaos,” Jose Santos Portillo Benitez, the mayor of Intipuca, told Al Jazeera.
About half of Intipuca’s population has migrated to the US, earning the town the nickname of the “Most Gringo Town in El Salvador”.
Most residents are receiving money sent from a parent, sibling, son or daughter in the US.
Money sent from abroad pays for medicine, schooling and development projects in the town.
Remittances give a boost to the local economy, which relies on purchases made with money sent from abroad.
Even a small decrease in remittances would be bad news for Intipuca, the mayor said. It would mean less school enrollment, cuts to cultural programmes and a slump for small businesses, he added.
Of the $5bn sent back to El Salvador last year, an estimated 20 percent was sent by TPS holders, according to the bond credit rating agency Moody’s.
The announcement by the Trump administration on January 8 about the termination of TPS for an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans living and working in the US could simultaneously end the flow of remittances and flood the town with returning migrants.
Unless US Congress passes legislation to provide an alternative migration status for these TPS holders, they will be expected to leave the country by September 2019.
‘Heightened sense of uncertainty’
“When I heard the announcement about TPS, I got goosebumps. I started thinking, ‘What are we going to do with all the people who would come back here? Where would they work?'” Portillo Benitez said. “There is a heightened sense of uncertainty here.”
This uncertainty is also affecting 68-year-old Santo Victoria Ponce, who relies on remittances sent by her five children in the US – two TPS holders, two undocumented immigrants, and one legal resident. The mother, who used to sell clothes in town before retiring six years ago, depends on this money to pay for her home, buy food and take care of her health.
“It’s all from the support of my kids. Without that, I wouldn’t have anything,” she told Al Jazeera.
Remittances have given Ponce a higher quality of life. She raised her kids in Intipuca in a one-room house with flimsy laminate walls.
Another piece of laminate served as a makeshift door.
Her son, Adrian Bonilla Ponce, 48, laughed as he remembered that pigs often wandered into the family’s home when he was growing up.
Now, thanks to the money her children have earned in the US, Ponce lives in a three-room house with indoor plumbing, tiled floors and a small kitchen.
The outside is painted lavender and white and the door closes shut securely to keep out unwanted visitors.
“I’m grateful to God and to the country (the US), because we arrived to work hard and we worked day and night,” said Bonilla Ponce sitting on a plastic chair at his mother’s house during his annual visit his hometown. “God helped us and we were at least able to make a house here, because before we didn’t even have enough to buy a plot of land.”
Families all over El Salvador have relied on remittances to improve their living conditions. In El Salvador, 41 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. Remittances reduce poverty in the small Central American nation of 6.5 million.
“A significant portion of the remittances are devoted to family consumption,” said Carmen Aida Lazo, an economist at the Escuela Superior de Economia y Negocios (ESEN) in San Salvador.
“If that income decreases, family consumption would also decrease, which could mean that some families are in a situation of vulnerability and they could even fall into poverty,” Aida Lazo told Al Jazeera.
“So, the end of TPS also has socioeconomic consequences,” she added.
Much of the development in Intipuca has been supported by remittances, both directly, sent straight to family members and indirectly, by contributing to the local economy overall.
In the city centre, construction projects line every few blocks as houses are built with remittances. A dirt road stretches about four kilometres from the city centre to the beach. Lining the road are houses with laminate sides like the one where Bonilla Ponce grew up.
At the beach, a water-side restaurant, Brisas del Mar, serves fresh fish and cold drinks. Three customers, friends in their early thirties, joked around, switching between English and Spanish.
Owner Jose Cruz Alvarenga, 62, was wearing a Yankees hat, even though he confessed to knowing little about baseball. Unfortunately, he said business has been slow lately. He said he suspects it is because people are worried about their immigration status and aren’t spending as much on things they don’t consider necessities, such as eating out.
“If this continues, things will only get worse for me,” he said. “If they take TPS away from everyone, they will all come here. El Salvador is already having troubles and it will just be worse.”
A handful of other small business owners reported a similar dip in sales. In sheer numbers, remittances to El Salvador actually increased last year.
Some experts attribute this to the “Trump effect”, with people sending more while they still can. But local business owners and residents in Intipuca believe that Salvadorans in the US are instructing that the money they send back be used differently now, saving for bigger expenses, like houses and cars, in case that they have to move back.
Bonilla Ponce spent part of his visit arranging improvements for the three-bedroom house he has built across from where his mother lives. His wife and two of their four children are also TPS holders. The other two children, including his 11-year-old daughter on the trip with him, were born in the US and are citizens.
When he left Intipuca 24 years ago, Bonilla Ponce imagined he would someday return to his hometown. He likes the quiet, but his two youngest children find it boring. Plus, they have better educational opportunities in the US. From the US, he can more easily support his mother in her old age. For his kids, and for his mum, Bonilla Ponce holds out hope for a solution to his migration problems.
“Living there, we earn more. So to be able to send $100 or $150 a month to my mom, it’s not that hard,” he said.
“But here, I wouldn’t be able to do that,” he added.
“I still have hope, and if not, we’ll just see what happens.”