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Nation & World

Salvadorans and other 'temporary' immigrants weigh what's next after the U.S. withdraws welcome mat

More than 2 decades after he fled civil war in his native El Salvador, Mauro Navarro doesn’t want to give up on his claim to the American Dream.

Navarro, 45, has been shielded from deportation through temporary protected status, a federal program for immigrants who were unable to return to their countries because of armed conflicts, environmental disasters or other “extraordinary and temporary conditions.”

But as with many who signed up for temporary status, Navarro’s stay turned out not to be temporary. He built a life in the United States for 25 years – only to be told that it’s time for him to go home.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced in January that the program for El Salvador would be phased out by Sept. 9, 2019. Salvadorans have until March 19 to re-register and renew their work permits a final time.

In the Chicago area, many facing this plight – the status also is ending for immigrants from Haiti, Sudan and Nicaragua – are feeling overlooked in the debate on immigration reform. Politicians have focused on the plight of so-called Dreamers who are in danger of losing protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But holders of this status say they are Dreamers too.

“We can’t just sit back with our arms crossed,” said Navarro, of Carpentersville. “We have
18 months to fight.”

Under the temporary protected status program, established in 1990, the federal government can grant protections for immigrants from a particular country for 6 to 18 months, then renew a country’s status if conditions remain unsafe.

It’s not unusual for the designation to end after 2 or 3 years. But many immigrants being affected now have held the status for 10 or 20 years and have established deep roots in the United States. Many have American-born spouses and children.

Under the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security has moved to end temporary protected status for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan and Nicaragua but extended it for South Sudan and Syria. The agency will still decide whether to end the program for Honduras, Nepal, Yemen and Somalia.

Administration officials have said those lengthy stays run contrary to Congress’ intent that the program be used to provide temporary protection.

White House chief of staff John Kelly emphasized that the program is “temporary” after visiting Haiti in June 2017, when he was still serving as the Homeland Security secretary.

“The point is not that there be a complete recovery of all ills in the country,” Kelly said in an interview with the AP. “The point is, whatever the event is that caused TPS to be granted – that event is over, and they can return.”

Illinois is home to about 4,073 people with temporary protected status, a fraction of the 436,869 living in the U.S.

To qualify for TPS, immigrants have to pass a background check and pay an application fee. They had to be present in the United States at the time that a TPS designation was initially made – a provision that was created in part to address concerns that the program would lead to a surge in new immigration, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Those who have been convicted of any felony or two or more misdemeanors in the U.S. are ineligible.

Salvadorans who fled their country’s civil war and were physically present in the U.S. as of September 1990 were granted temporary protected status. Salvador was re-designated for the program because of the damage caused by two earthquakes that devastated the country in 2001.

Immigration advocates say the country is not prepared to receive thousands of people and that conditions are still very dangerous. They point out that the State Department warns people to “reconsider travel” to El Salvador because of crime.

Alejandro Segura, 49, said he left El Salvador in 1999 and came to the U.S. on a religious worker visa. He applied for the TPS program in 2001 and settled in Joliet with his wife and sons, who were 4 and 7 at the time. Segura had worked as a teacher in El Salvador and left to do missionary work in the U.S. He and his wife decided to stay so that their children would have a shot at a better life.

Now, Segura manages a restaurant in Joliet. His children graduated from high school and work full time. Segura worries that his sons will “fall in with the wrong crowd” in El Salvador. He said they primarily identify with American culture and mostly speak English.

“It may not be so difficult for me to return because I already had a career and a life over there,” he said. “But my sons haven’t. They’re very young. It’d be like sending them to the belly of the beast.”

The family doesn’t plan on returning to El Salvador anytime soon. Segura said he has “faith” and “confidence” that the situation will work itself out.

“Everything seems dark now, but we’re going to do things the right way,” he said. “If we have to return, we will return with pleasure. No problem. The only thing I’m worried about is my kids. I don’t think they’ll be able to adapt over there.”

Maria Cruz visited Centro Romero recently to renew her temporary protected status for the last time before the March 19 deadline.

Cruz, 47, of west suburban North Riverside, said her family traveled to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 2001 and applied for the program after learning about it on the news. She said it was a good opportunity for her children, who were 9, 7 and 3 at the time, to flee violence and poverty in El Salvador.

“I’ve been here for 18 years. I pay taxes and I follow the rules,” she said. “So it’s sad to hear that they want to deport us.”

Cruz said she has three U.S.-born grandchildren and dreads the thought of being separated from them. Worse, she fears the prospect of returning to a country that her family says isn’t ready to receive them.

“How can we return to a situation like that? It’s terrible,” she said. “My mom says you can’t even take a walk in the neighborhood without being in danger.”

President Donald Trump reportedly referred to El Salvador, Haiti and some African nations as “s------ countries” in a January meeting to discuss a bipartisan immigration deal. The White House has denied that he used that phrase, though Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois., insists that Trump said it “repeatedly.”

Navarro called Trump’s remarks “hurtful” and said they motivated him to get involved in advocacy work.

“Donald Trump thinks we’re all part of MS-13, but that’s not the case,” he said, referring to a criminal gang. “He doesn’t know the reality of the situation or why we’re here. We didn’t come here to take a single penny away from U.S. citizens. On the contrary, we are contributing to the country’s economy.”

Navarro said he left El Salvador in 1991 because of the 12-year civil war that destroyed his home. He entered the U.S. illegally in 1992 and applied for the program as soon as it was established. Now, he works two jobs – he’s a full-time cook and part-time factory worker – to help support his three U.S.-born children and pay his mortgage.

Navarro said he’s planning to apply for permanent residency through his U.S.-born daughter, who will be 21 in November and can apply on his behalf.

Navarro said he wants to fight for other Dreamers and people with temporary protected status who don’t have that option.

“We want Congress to understand that we didn’t come here to steal jobs or anything like that. We’re not asking for a handout,” Navarro said. “We just want to stay. This is home.”

nmoreno@chicagotribune.com

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©2018 the Chicago Tribune

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