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Thousands Of Salvadorans Await Decision On Their Status In the U.S.

Jose Zabala
Diane Orson
Jose Zabala

Thousands of Salvadoran immigrants in Connecticut and Massachusetts will find out by Monday whether their legal status in the U.S. will be extended or revoked. Some have lived in the U.S. for nearly two decades, and many don’t know what they’ll do if they’re told to leave.

Jose Zabala came to the U.S. just as a major earthquake hit his native El Salvador. That was almost 17 years ago. He was granted Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. The 37-year-old father works during the days at a Connecticut car wash. At nights, he cleans an office building.

“I’m married and I have two U.S. citizen children,” he said, speaking through a translator.  “I’m the one with TPS and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me if that’s taken away.”

Zabala’s daughters are 5 and 8 years old. He said they don’t know yet what’s happening, “but when they grow up, I worry about how they’re going to react.”

Immigration attorney Alex Meyerovich said he’s worried now about how his clients with TPS are reacting when he explains that they may lose their long-standing legal status. Often, he gets back blank stares.

“Right now I’m struggling with almost this post-traumatic stress disorder of people not being able to digest the bad news,” he said. “I tell them, you need to start thinking of plan B. And they are in complete denial.”

The Trump administration has begun to dismantle the Temporary Protected Status program. TPS has been assigned to several countries where environmental disasters or armed conflict make it extraordinarily difficult for people to live safely. It allows people from those countries to live and work legally in the U.S.

But once the TPS designation ends, immigrants revert back to their prior legal status and are especially vulnerable to deportation, said Meyerovich.

“When people applied for TPS, they disclosed all their transgressions, whether it’s a prior order of deportation or multiple orders of deportation, or what not,” he said. “Immigration authorities know exactly where they are. And these TPS holders, former TPS holders, will be become the ripest apple on the tree. They’ll just come in and pick them up.”

The Department of Homeland Security has already announced its ending TPS for Haitian and Nicaraguan immigrants because it believes conditions in those countries have improved and people can return safely.

Juan Mejia
Credit Diane Orson / WNPR
Juan Mejia

Another Salvadoran TPS holder, Juan Mejia, does not agree that’s true. He said in El Salvador and neighboring Honduras, which is also waiting to hear about its TPS status, conditions remain dangerous.

“It would be terrible if the current administration ended TPS,” he said. “We’d be stuck in a limbo where we’d have to go back to our countries, which would be impossible because the gang violence there is so tremendous.”

In El Salvador, Mejia said he was a subsistence farmer, and made just enough food to feed his family. He came to the U.S. almost 18 years ago and supports his children back in El Salvador by working two jobs: as a gas station attendant, and a part-time janitor.

The 56-year-old said losing TPS would be devastating.

“It would leave our families impoverished and our children without the ability to study anymore because we wouldn’t be able to make the money they needed to continue with their studies,” he said.

Attorney Myerovich said it's been very difficult to deliver the bad news to his TPS clients.

"They say it's not going to happen," he said. "I’ve been here for so long. And I’ve been doing everything by the book. Nothing is going to happen to me. It's impossible.”

But Meyerovich said it's quite possible that he may have to deliver more difficult news very soon.

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Diane Orson is CT Public Radio's Deputy News Director and Southern Connecticut Bureau Chief. For years, hers was the first voice many Connecticut residents heard each day as the local host of Morning Edition. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. She is the co-recipient of a Peabody Award. Her work has been recognized by the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists and the Associated Press, including the Ellen Abrams Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and the Walt Dibble Award for Overall Excellence.