Thousands of people who left violence and other problems in El Salvador live in Northwest Arkansas. Now some might have to leave.
Jose Merlos, a seven-year employee at Mercadito Salvadoreno, works Friday behind the counter at the Springdale convenience store.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced earlier this month it would end the temporary residency permits for 195,000 Salvadorans who came to the United States after powerful earthquakes killed hundreds in their country in 2001. They have until September 2019 to leave, apply for another kind of permit to stay or face arrest and deportation.
Temporary Protected Status
This program allows people from certain countries to temporarily stay in the United States without visas or other permits. The secretary of Homeland Security may designate a country for the program if it’s experiencing conditions that temporarily prevent the country’s people from returning safely or if the country can’t accommodate their return.
The program includes:
• El Salvador*
• South Sudan
- These countries are being phased out from the program in the coming months or years.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Francisco Ayala, a Salvadoran living in Fayetteville, said he plans to go back to El Salvador early next year. His American-born son, who will soon be 18, will have to choose whether to come with him.
Ayala came to the U.S. in 2000 as a graduate student shortly before the earthquakes struck. He decided he would stay if the temporary program accepted him, which it did. His new status let him get a job outside of his university and eventually come to Arkansas. He works as a case manager for the refugee resettlement group Canopy Northwest Arkansas.
"I just know that my life would be totally different" without temporary status, Ayala said. "I am not making millions, that's for sure, but I am doing what I like by helping people.
"It is easy to feel anger, but in my case, I feel grateful because this country gave me 17 years," he said.
He added the choice is much more difficult for many others.
"My situation in El Salvador won't be that bad, but for some people, being sent back will mean being murdered upon arrival."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and several media outlets have described street gangs that pervade El Salvador, extort civilians, kill those who defy them, including children, and have branched into the United States. The country's murder rate in 2016 was among the world's highest: 16 times as high as in the U.S., according to the U.S. State Department and FBI.
About 11,000 people in Northwest Arkansas in 2016 hailed from El Salvador, a Central American country about halfway between Mexico and Panama, according to Census estimates. That makes this particular group about equal in size to the local Marshallese community.
How many are covered by the Temporary Protected Status program is unclear. The ratio of the program's enrollment compared to the overall Salvadoran population in the U.S. suggests about 1,000 Northwest Arkansans, and twice as many in Arkansas overall, might have the temporary status.
"Just about everyone we've talked to has said there's no way they could go back to El Salvador," said Drew Devenport, a Springdale immigration attorney at Davis Law Firm. Some clients are considering trying to reach Canada instead. Devenport urged people with temporary status to talk with an attorney to determine if they qualify for employment visas or can apply for an immigration permit through a family member who's a citizen, a process that can take years.
The Temporary Protected Status program is similar to deferred action for childhood arrivals, a larger, Obama-era temporary permit program the Trump administration decided last year to end. A federal judge in California on Tuesday ruled the administration must keep the program going while several lawsuits against the cancellation continue.
Congress created the protected status program in 1990 on humanitarian grounds, allowing the government to extend it to people from countries experiencing crisis. Recipients must continually re-register and can't have a felony conviction.
As it did with deferred action, the Trump administration suggested Congress extend temporary status if it disagrees with the decision to end it for Salvadorans.
"Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist," the Homeland Security announcement about El Salvador said. "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."
Spokespeople for Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Steve Womack, both R-Ark., didn't return email requests for comment on the program last week. The two have generally supported Trump's decisions on immigration and his broader push to tighten the border.
Cotton has proposed cutting legal immigration in half and has said he'd support continuing the deferred action program only if other immigration programs are curtailed. He rejected a plan last week from a bipartisan group of senators to revive deferred action, arguing it didn't go far enough on the security side.
Womack told KHBS/KHOG Channel 40/29 on Friday he agreed with President Donald Trump's sentiment the country should try to attract immigrants from countries more similar to the U.S. instead of "depraved countries." Womack didn't give any specific examples of the latter.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said he applauded the president's "work to restore the integrity of our nation's immigration system."
"It's clear that President Trump and the Secretary of Homeland Security recognize that our entire immigration system, and programs like TPS, have serious flaws and tend to offer short-term solutions to long-term problems," he said in a written statement. "Ultimately, we want to continue to be a nation that helps those in need, but we must also ensure that we are making decisions that benefit our country so we can continue to be in a position to provide that help."
Immigrant advocates have called for temporary status and deferred action to be continued and for reforms to allow immigrants without authorization to be here to be apply for legal status. Immigrants who aren't present legally can't apply for citizenship.
El Salvador has struggled with widespread violence for decades, and not just from gangs. A civil war stretched on for 12 years and killed 75,000 before it ended in 1992, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.
Hugo Gonzalez left the country and his parents around 1990 because of the war to come to the U.S. legally -- he's not part of the temporary program. He took jobs at a Northwest Arkansas chicken plant and elsewhere before starting Mercadito Salvadoreno, or Little Salvadoran Market, in Springdale 15 years ago. The store sells Salvadoran and Mexican groceries and soccer jerseys and helps people send money around the world.
Salvadorans in the U.S., including Gonzalez, send billions of dollars annually back to relatives in El Salvador, making up about one-fifth of the country's entire economy, according to the CIA.
Gonzalez has a green card and three U.S.-born children. He hopes someday El Salvador is stable and safe enough to go back. Though he's not personally affected by the recent Homeland Security decision, he said the people who are have built full lives here.
"They have a house, some people have a business," he said. "It's good people."
NW News on 01/15/2018
Print Headline: Local Salvadorans face hard choices