Local opposition mounted Monday to the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the permits of about 200,000 Salvadorans who live in the U.S. as part of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program.
About 18,000 Salvadoran immigrants live in Maryland and participate in the immigration program, which is designed to help citizens of countries affected by natural disaster, war or other extraordinary and temporary conditions come to the U.S.
Immigrants from the Central American nation were first admitted to the TPS program after earthquakes ravaged the country in 2001.
Since then, many who moved to the U.S., including thousands who live in Montgomery County, have developed their lives here, supporters say. TPS holders in Maryland have about 17,100 children, according to Montgomery County Council statistics.
Under the Trump administration’s directive, Salvadoran TPS holders will have until Sept. 9, 2019, to either leave the U.S. or obtain legal residency, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen announced Monday that the decision to rescind TPS for Salvadorans was due to a recognition that conditions in El Salvador have improved dramatically since the 2001 earthquakes.
The Trump administration previously ended TPS for 60,000 Haitians and 2,500 Nicaraguan immigrants in November.
Last month, the County Council passed a resolution urging the federal government to protect TPS for Salvadoran immigrants and others.
El Salvador recently moved its consul to Silver Spring from Washington, D.C. The country’s consul, Ena Ursula Pena, told the council that the county has become “the home base” for Salvadoran TPS holders in the country. She said they attend meetings, get training and plan ways to protect TPS in Congress at the consul.
Del. Ana Sol Gutiérrez (D-Chevy Chase) said Monday she has worked the past six months to try to get Congress to take action on immigration legislation to protect TPS holders and other immigrants who have been living in the county for years.
“Ever since [President Donald] Trump began his candidacy and expressed his hatred of all immigrants, we knew this wasn’t an administration we can count on,” Gutiérrez, who was born in El Salvador, said. “To me, personally, my heart is broken.”
She said immigrants who have lived in the country and participated in TPS now live under constant uncertainty. She hopes Congress will pass legislation to protect immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than 5 or 10 years, but doesn’t have much confidence in the Republican-controlled Congress doing so.
She said many bus and garbage-truck drivers in the county are Salvadoran TPS holders who have obtained commercial driver’s licenses.
“We need to switch gears and continue asking specifically for a path for permanent residency,” Gutiérrez said.
Gutiérrez, who is running for Montgomery County Council, described Salvadoran TPS participants as a “model community of immigrants.” She noted that to qualify for the protection, they have to go through a police background check, provide their fingerprints and pay administrative fees—a process that must be redone every 18 months to receive TPS renewal.
Local groups such as the immigrant advocacy organization CASA and the local service union 32BJ SEIU denounced the move to end Salvadorans’ protected status Monday.
The union’s vice president, Jaime Contreras, who left El Salvador when he was 13 and served in the U.S. Navy, said the Central American country remains dangerous.
“Deporting hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents back to the most dangerous country in the western hemisphere is not just an affront to American values, but a near-homicidal act,” Contreras said in a statement.
Last year, The New York Times wrote a feature about the violent gangs that “make El Salvador the murder capital of the world.”
One of those gangs, MS-13, which got its start in Los Angeles and later migrated to El Salvador, also has a sizable presence in the Washington, D.C., area, where it has been linked to several violent murders over the past two years—including about a dozen in Montgomery County.
However, Gutiérrez said MS-13 should not be involved in conversations about law-abiding Salvadoran immigrants.
“It’s being used at the federal level by [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions and Trump to paint immigrants in a bad light,” Gutiérrez said.
She said illegal activity associated with gangs is best dealt with by police and courts, rather than through broad immigration policy. “I’m not saying we don’t have a problem with gangs, but we have tools in place to deal with them,” she said. “There is no need to create fear nationally.”