When the Trump administration announced in January that nearly 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States would lose their immigration status in September 2019 and face deportation to Central America, families across New York State began to panic. In 1990, Congress established the Temporary Protected Status program, which provided immigrants from specified countries afflicted by environmental devastation or civil war with the right to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.
But though the program was renewed several times since then with little fanfare, President Trump has sought to end the protections for 300,000 U.S. residents from El Salvador, Haiti, and other countries next year, as part of his sweeping immigration policies that reverse many Obama-era orders. These individuals are living in a kind of immigration limbo — they have had permission to live and work in the United States legally for nearly two decades, but their status was at risk of revocation on the whims of the president.
“The message is: By definition, TPS is temporary,” said then–Homeland Security secretary John Kelly of Haitians’ status last summer. “They should start thinking now about what will happen in the not-too-distant future, but I don’t want to get into whether it’s going to be extended or not at this point.”
Salvadorans make up about two-thirds of TPS immigrants, and nearly 80 percent of them send money back to their families from the United States. Almost all of them came to the United States illegally and lived and worked as undocumented immigrants until they were eligible to apply for TPS once President George W. Bush added Salvadorans to the program in 2001. If their protections expire next year as planned, families would face the agonizing choice of moving back to their homelands or staying in America and risking deportation.
In New York, according to a study by the Center for American Progress, there are about 16,200 Salvadorans with TPS status, as well as about 15,600 children born in the United States whose parents would face deportation. New York Salvadoran TPS holders have lived in the state on average about 21 years, according to the study, and 4,100 have mortgages. One in five work in the food services industry, one in six work in manufacturing, and one in 10 work in administrative support services.
Much of New York’s Salvadoran community is concentrated in Nassau County and in Queens along the city border. According to immigrant rights and labor groups, Salvadorans in Long Island typically work long hours at low-wage jobs washing dishes and preparing food as line cooks, scrubbing bathrooms and floors in megamalls, and maintaining public parks and golf courses.
“They’re doing the work that makes the suburban lifestyle possible,” says a New York 32BJ SEIU spokeswoman who works with a cohort of mall cleaners.
Brooklyn representative Nydia Velázquez and other Democratic leaders want to protect TPS immigrants from deportation and allow them to apply for permanent residency, but immigration negotiations have been extraordinarily difficult in Congress. Salvadoran TPS holders hope their American-born children will be able to sponsor them for naturalization once they turn 21, but the process can take years and can involve returning to El Salvador. Few are eligible for green cards, which are doled out to skilled college-educated workers fortunate enough to have their employers sponsor them.
“Their employer has to demonstrate there is nobody here in the United States who can do this job, and it is impossible to do that,” said Make the Road New York Nassau County organizer Javier Guzman. “Some of these people don’t know how to read and write even in Spanish, but they’re incredibly smart.”
Until then, many Salvadoran families will wait to see whether the country they have lived in for two decades will allow them to stay here.
Yehovani Villalobos got out of El Salvador at just the right time.
In 1991, El Salvador was gripped by a brutal civil war, with militant gangs storming villages looking for young new recruits.
“It was hell,” Villalobos recalls. “Sometimes the military and other groups would fight with guns outside the village, and you would have to hide under the bed or dig holes in your living room so you can hide and cover that hole. Sometimes they would kick the doors and look for people really quick. That’s why you have to hide, or get out and go.”
His uncle and aunt were the first people in his family to make the move in the 1980s, working without documentation in a supermarket in Nassau County bagging groceries and cleaning bathrooms. Villalobos crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, joining his mother who was already in Hempstead, where his half-sister was born a few years later. He started high school there, but after his stepfather started doing drugs and ended up in jail and eventually deported to El Salvador by Homeland Security officials, he dropped out and found a job to help his family.
Villalobos was undocumented until he applied for Temporary Protected Status in 2001. After working at an electronics factory and for a fence company, Villalobos ended up as a seasonal worker for Nassau County. He has been pruning and maintaining public golf courses in the county for 11 years, rising in the middle of the night from March through December to work from 4 a.m. to around 6 p.m. “We do mowing in the morning — tees and fairways to make sure everything is clean when players come and play,” he says. “And we water as well. Sometimes you stop working, let the players go, and then you continue working.”
On his breaks, Villalobos sometimes grabs a club and drives a few balls down the fairways. It’s a hard game to master, he says, but it beats working indoors. “I like it. That’s why I keep coming back,” he says. “The pay isn’t that bad and I like to do what I do.”
Still, he says he’d like to have a little more stability. Even though parks workers are unionized, seasonal workers don’t get health care, paid sick days, workers compensation, holidays, and other benefits.
“We can’t be doing this all our lives. Sooner or later we’re getting old and sooner or later we’re going to need health insurance,” he says, explaining that his parks department job is relatively stable since it is a public sector position and he is not looking for employment elsewhere. His lack of benefits is the main reason he’s delayed starting a family: “I’m not prepared for that. The kind of job I have right now is insecure, economically. I’m not prepared for that. I don’t want to bring somebody to suffer with me.”
But Villalobos likes living in Long Island. He gets to see his mother and sister on the weekends and taking his mother to church. He said he would never go back to El Salvador even if the federal government revoked his Temporary Protected Status.
“The situation there is basically the same,” he says. “It’s all those gang members deported to El Salvador making problems for everybody.”
In 2000, several years after the peace accords that ended the civil war in 1992, Crisanto Andrade moved from a poor village in El Salvador to New York, just before the two earthquakes decimated his homeland.
“It wasn’t even a town,” he says. “It was a really rural area and most people worked in agriculture growing corn, beans, rice, chiles, and onions. We were really poor but I was always looking for something better.”
At 27 and with a family to support, Andrade was eager to find work. Many of his friends had already come to Long Island after the war, and he needed to support the rest of his family that stayed behind, including two young daughters. He crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone. Gangs were trying to recruit his son, and he sent for him after he arrived.
After stints working at a food services factory in Brentwood and doing private landscaping, he, like Villalobos, ended up a seasonal worker with the Nassau County Department of Parks. He says he likes the “freedom of being outside” instead of being cooped up in a citrus factory, and enjoys the security of living in Long Island. Though his daughters are in college in El Salvador — one studies computer science while the other is in a business program — he worried it would not be safe for his son.
“Young males like to go outside a lot, so it is pretty dangerous because of the gangs,” he says. “In order to recruit people sometimes they just attack boys. They bother girls, too, but it’s different.”
Andrade has returned to El Salvador about five times since moving to Long Island, and says he’s noticed the proliferation of gangs. “If I wore these sneakers in El Salvador they’d stop them and take them,” he says, pointing to his Puma athletic shoes. “And if you wear any clothing with a brand name they’ll take them from you. It’s so easy: They stop you and ask you to hand them over, and if you don’t you’ll get killed. For a pair of sneakers.”
Andrade hopes that his daughters will be able to join him in Long Island once they graduate from college. “I don’t want to leave,” he says. “It would be hard to go to another country and start all over again. But yes, if I had to go to another country, I would do that.”
Edgar Lazo grew up in Lislique, a small village of less than 3,000 people near El Salvador’s northeast border with Honduras. He moved to Long Island in 1995 when he was 22 and single, with the help of his brothers and a friend of his who was already in the United States. He crossed the border by himself, eventually joining his friend in Long Island.
“People in El Salvador thought I had money, and it was really tenuous at the time,” Lazo says, explaining that gang members knew he had family in the United States who would send back money each month. “People over there, they just ask for money, a payment you have to make in order to live a normal life. It was a kind of extortion.”
A couple of years after he started working as a landscaper in Mineola, a neighborhood he describes as pretty, he met a woman who had recently arrived from El Salvador. They married and had two sons, though they are now separated.
When he isn’t working for the county parks department as a landscaper, Lazo visits with his sons, now 16 and 18.
“We go to eat, go for a walk, go shopping,” he says. “Just here in the island.” Both boys stopped going to high school classes, he says, because their school had a “lot of problems,” he says. “The first day they went to school, one of the students got shot. I won’t ask them to go back to school. Somehow, they have those fears for a reason, you know?”
Still, Lazo says he likes the “safety and freedom” the United States provides, and does not like to contemplate his future if the federal government revokes his immigration status. He also would like to find another partner someday — “someone who doesn’t want to have more kids.”
“I knew one woman from El Salvador who helped me come to the U.S., and when I first arrived I slept on her couch,” recalls Minda Hernandez. “The guy who became my husband used to rent a room in the place I landed. It was love at first sight. We both have the same birthday, and that’s the day we got married.”
Hernandez left San Miguel, the third most populous city in El Salvador, for Suffolk County in 1998 when she was 28 years old. After her marriage, she found work at an envelope factory in Farmingdale, and had a son, Bryant, in 2001. Once she and her husband were able to apply and obtain Temporary Protected Status, she found a better job working in a school cafeteria, learned how to drive, and got a driver’s license. That helped her get a job as a shift cleaner in the Walt Whitman Mall in nearby Huntington Station in 2009.
Her husband, she says, would work in the morning, “and I would work at night, so Bryant has never had a babysitter.” Even now, Hernandez’s shift runs from 2:45 p.m. to 11 p.m. Cleaners, who work for a contractor hired by the mall, work their shifts in pairs and in groups of four on Fridays and weekends when the mall is busier.
Hernandez and her husband were eventually able to save enough money to buy a home in Huntington. Now that their son is in high school, she says, her evening shift is challenging because she isn’t always around as her son is growing up and contemplating college.
“Sometimes I go to the mall with my son,” she says. “I’m kind of sick of being there because I’m there all the time. He says, ‘C’mon, mom, let’s go.’ For him I do it.”
Hernandez likes living in Huntington. Her house is comfortable and her neighborhood is quiet with people who don’t make a lot of noise, she says. The two times she visited El Salvador, in 2012 and 2016, she felt “very out of place.”
“I felt strange. I didn’t know anything, it’s dusty, and there are flies and bugs,” she says. “It is my country, but I don’t like it. And when I walked around the street, I don’t know if somebody is going to do something to me. I felt very insecure when I was there.”
If her status gets eliminated, Hernandez says, she would be forced to move back to San Miguel and live with her parents. But she doesn’t want to go back to her homeland.
“I don’t want to leave my son,” she says. “I don’t want to leave my job. I don’t want to leave my house and the life I’ve made here. As long as you’re working you can eat what you want and buy what clothes you want. We wouldn’t have the same luxuries available or the same level of choices there that we have here. And I don’t want to feel like I have to hide if I have to stay here.”
Hernandez and her son watched the State of the Union speech together but didn’t really talk about it. “When we heard the things he said about immigration, neither one of us said anything because there was nothing to say,” she says. “And when he was done my son just got up and walked off. I know that he’s worried but he doesn’t say anything about it. He doesn’t want to talk about the fact that his parents might have to leave.”
Raquel Orozco was a lawyer in El Salvador, one of the few women in her graduating class in 1996. But as a criminal defense lawyer, she says, she had trouble earning a living because most of her clients couldn’t pay her.
“When I went to the jail to see what the work really was, I would cry, because I would see people who I wanted to help but they had no money to pay,” she says. “And a number of them were criminals at a level that would have been very difficult to help. How am I going to defend people like this?”
At one point she couldn’t even afford bus fare to get to court in San Salvador, the nation’s capital. And when she tried to get a job in the country’s judicial system, she found the demands were unsavory and biased against those from working-class backgrounds.
“Sometimes friends would would say, ‘We’ll help you if you would go out with somebody or do sexual favors for somebody,’ ” she says. “People would tell me, ‘You need somebody who is a “cuello,” or a “collar” ’ — a mentor who is corrupt who will squeeze you in for political reasons.”
As she grew frustrated with her lack of professional success, Orozco happened to meet a Colombian man who was making his way north towards the United States. He convinced her to join him on his trip.
“He said, ‘Let’s go to the United Sates — you can study there. We’ll figure it out,’” she says. “We came together.” The pair settled in Queens in 1999, and are now married with two children. Her husband got a job as an auto painter; Orozco initially worked in a deli in Mineola, making salads and sandwiches, and now works cleaning the Roosevelt Field Mall in East Garden City for 30 hours a week.
Wearing a uniform of black work pants and a black shirt bearing the mall’s logo, Orozco and a team of five other people clean bathrooms and sweep floors five days a week from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekends.
She sends about $300 a month from her earnings back to her 80-year-old mother and brother, who still live in San Salvador, the country’s capital. But she hasn’t visited either of them since moving nearly 20 years ago.
“I get nervous about customs and immigration workers at the airport,” she says. “I am worried I wouldn’t be let back into the country. I would like to return when I have the proper documents and it is easy to go there and come back, but it feels insecure at this moment.”
She also worries about her family’s safety in San Salvador. Her mother, a retired government worker who lives on a pension, pays $10 per week to one of the four rival gangs that control the city. That has become a point of contention between Orozco’s mother and twentysomething daughter.
“My daughter used to say, ‘Just call the cops. Why are you paying these strangers money for no good reason?’ and my mother would say, ‘That’s not how it works here. You don’t live here, you don’t know what it’s like, you don’t understand,’” Orozco says.
Orozco says Queens is her home now. She is taking English classes at Queens College, has made friends with her neighbors and co-workers, and enjoys visiting museums and theaters in the city. Her dream is to visit Egypt. She does not want to contemplate returning to El Salvador against her will.
“I’ve really adapted to life here,” she says. “I’ve been paying taxes since 2003. I love and respect the culture here, I never run any traffic light, and I’m not scared to go anywhere.”
She adds, “I don’t understand the system in El Salvador at all. What would I do if I go back? A friend joked, ‘I think we’re going to die just from anxiety over how we would manage it.’”
Her son is 17 now, and the thought of being separated from her son and husband, who does not have legal status in the U.S., distresses her.
“If I had to return right now to El Salvador I would feel like a complete failure,” she says, wiping away tears. “I don’t want to leave my husband or my son. If I have my son taken away, then I have nothing.”