Salvadorans Face Gangs’ Brutal Welcome as US Protections End

President Trump has ended ‘Temporary Protected Status’ for migrants from four different countries: El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan.

A street register in the San Roque neighborhood in San Salvador shows a little child looking towards the soldier who was checking his brother when they went to church. The Salvadoran government has taken the army to the streets as a measure to combat the rising crime wave.
A street register in the San Roque neighborhood in San Salvador shows a little child looking towards the soldier who was checking his brother when they went to church. The Salvadoran government has taken the army to the streets as a measure to combat the rising crime wave. (photo: Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight, courtesy of Catholic Relief Services)

LOS ANGELES — Dalia’s father did not tell her where they were going: Accompanied by a friend, her father carried Dalia on his back “into the woods” and out of El Salvador’s civil war.

Their long walk in 1991 lasted 2,826 miles, until, finally, Dalia’s father set down his little girl in Los Angeles, reuniting with his wife, who had escaped before them.

Today, Dalia (she requested her last name be withheld) is married and a full-time student studying American Sign Language. She is also a part-time employee at a local business. When “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS) was extended to Salvadorans following a devastating earthquake in 2001, Dalia’s mother made sure they applied, and renewed every 18 months, so they would retain a lawful presence in the United States.

However, the Trump administration announced Jan. 8 that it was ending the TPS program for migrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Sudan. The decision means approximately 200,000 Salvadorans will no longer be able to renew their provisional residency permits after the program’s close.

By Sept. 9, 2019, they will either have to return to El Salvador, obtain another path for continued legal status or lose legal residency and face deportation.

The Department of Homeland Security maintained that the original conditions that prompted TPS for El Salvador — the 2001 earthquake that left 1 million people homeless — no longer exist and the Salvadoran government is able to repatriate them.

Salvadoran government officials, however, have told the White House they are facing terrific levels of violence due to gangs that originated in the U.S. The country’s murder rate is 109 per 100,000 people — one of the highest in the world — and the influx of tens of thousands of people at once would further destabilize the country, officials said.

The program’s ending threatens to break up tens of thousands of families: Approximately 109,000 U.S. children have one Salvadoran parent who benefits from TPS.

Dalia and her family have found mechanisms to transition from TPS to a path toward legal citizenship. However, she said the family would face immediate danger if they had been forced to return — the MS-13 gang has taken over their house in El Salvador.

Dalia said Salvadorans who grow up in the U.S. have a target on their backs if they return: They act like Americans, do not speak Spanish like the Salvadorans, and are easy prey for violence or for ransom, if the gangs find out they have family in the U.S. There also is the culture shock of growing up in the United States and being sent to a country that is essentially foreign to their experience.

“There are so many possibilities — but they’re all bad possibilities,” she said.


Legislative Solutions Needed

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, which has a large Haitian population, including TPS recipients, told the Register that Catholics needed to call on Congress to step in. Approximately 60,000 Haitians potentially face deportation when TPS runs out in July 2019.

“We need a humanitarian and humane resolution to this challenge,” he said. “After eight years or after 20 years, you can’t expect them to go home, open the door, and find life as they left it.”

Archbishop Wenski said Congress could extend TPS by making it permanent, or give TPS beneficiaries a path to residency and the benefits of citizenship. One proposal considered by the Senate was diverting the annual 50,000 diversity-visa lottery to TPS and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, allowing them to have temporary legal status until their number came up.

“That would be a better solution, because the TPS beneficiaries know they would not be deported, so long as they stay out of trouble,” he said.

In a Jan. 8 statement, the Department of Homeland Security itself challenged Congress to develop a legislative solution before the program’s ending in 2019.

“Only Congress can legislate a permanent solution addressing the lack of an enduring lawful immigration status of those currently protected by TPS who have lived and worked in the United States for many years,” it stated.

Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said the Trump administration strongly believes that temporary programs like TPS should not be extended indefinitely, since “a program is not temporary if it goes on year after year.” From a legal standpoint, he said, the administration appears on solid ground.

However, Selee added that while ending TPS is legal, as a matter of public policy, it did not seem wise to end the program for people who had by now integrated within the social fabric of the United States. Selee added the U.S. does not have a statute of limitations on deportation, unlike other countries.

“Many countries in Europe have a statute of limitations, where if you’ve lived unauthorized in the country a certain number of years, you don’t have a criminal record, and you’ve integrated into society, then you can come forth and be legalized,” he said. “That is not something we do in this country.”


Social and Economic Ramifications

Removing Salvadorans with TPS, and sending them back to El Salvador, is anticipated to have a destabilizing effect on Salvadoran society and the economy, according to analysts.

Rick Jones, a representative for Catholic Relief Services working in El Salvador, told the Register that the levels of violent crime in the country are “way beyond the levels of epidemic, which are 10 per 100,000 people.”

“Second, the economy is not generating enough jobs for people to come back,” Jones said. “People would come back, looking to start their own businesses, and a lot of people don’t want to do that, because of the extortion.”

El Salvador has 100,000 unemployed youth between the ages of 15-25, Jones explained. The country’s governmental and private sectors, he said, are not prepared to handle an influx of 100,000 repatriated Salvadorans and have no place to put them. The country already has a housing deficit of 500,000 homes.

At the same time, he said Salvadorans return $4.5 billion in family remittances, so the economic loss of TPS beneficiaries also threatens the nation’s economic stability.

“That is 20% of the gross national product and outstrips all of the foreign aid by far,” he said.

Those remittances, Jones said, play a key role in El Salvador’s projected path out of poverty and gang control, by providing the funds for microfinancing that can support new small business and cooperatives and help build a strong middle class.


Catholic Teaching

While the Catholic Church recognizes that states have a right to control their borders as part of their care for the common good, the Church also teaches that there are limits to what states can morally do.

The Second Vatican Council condemned deportation in Gaudium et Spes, calling it one of the evils that “poison human society” that are a “supreme dishonor to the Creator” and “do more harm to those that practice them than those who suffer from the injury.”

St. John Paul II restated this condemnation in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), citing the passage from Gaudium et Spes that lists deportation alongside abortion and other grave wrongs as examples of “intrinsic evils,” and also citing Blessed Paul VI’s teaching in Humanae Vitae that “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.”

Archbishop Wenski explained the Church’s moral tradition affirms the laws of the state, also known as “positive law,” are only just when they respect the natural law, which is God’s law about what is good and what is evil for human nature, knowable through natural reason.

He added that Americans need to weigh the justice of human laws in light of the natural law, when it comes to situations of human life and dignity. However, whether the issue is abortion or migrants, Americans too often embody a type of “secularized Calvinism” and judge whether someone or something is good or bad, either abortion or a migrant, solely on what the laws of the state say.

“We have a natural-law tradition,” he said. “We know that not everything which is legal is right, or that everything which is illegal is not necessarily wrong.”

Right now, he said, TPS recipients are in a holding pattern, but the Church is facing an exponentially greater pastoral challenge if nothing is done.

Archbishop Wenski recalled that when he was a freshly ordained 25-year-old priest, at Corpus Christi parish in Miami, a Salvadoran couple 20 years older than he was came into his office. They had a dispute they could not resolve: The wife was crying because she wanted to go home, as her mother was dying; the agitated husband asked him to tell her to stay with him in Miami.

“If she goes back to Salvador, she will die of hunger, and so will her mother, because we are the ones sending money back to El Salvador to keep the family alive,” the man said. “And we’re both here illegally. If she goes back, we’ll never be together again.”

“So what do you tell people like that?” Archbishop Wenski asked. “That’s real life.”

 Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.