Traveling abroad in the Trump era? For some legal residents, not so fast

Will Gupta aches to visit his parents in northern India near the border with Pakistan.

But he can’t bring himself to do it. Not yet.

It has nothing to do with his legal status. He’s a legal permanent U.S. resident. But the 32-year-old East Los Angeles resident worries that his appearance, combined with the fact that he’s not yet an American citizen, could cause him to be flagged somehow.

Gupta moved to California more than a decade ago to work at a friend's garment business and later got a green card.

He can travel back to his homeland. But he said the Trump administration is so unpredictable that he believes it “can enact any law just like that. There’s no advance warning. He just signs a piece of paper and your life can change.”

So, worried that his return would somehow become complicated, he has no plans to travel overseas any time soon.

Gupta said he will board a flight to visit his mother and father when he thinks he finally understands “the new way the U.S. operates.”

For some legal residents, traveling in a time in which talk of travel bans and massive border walls flows from the White House has become an anxiety-inducing proposition.

Some travel agencies that cater to immigrant populations are reporting dips in travel. Some travel agency representatives who cater specifically to Latinos living in the U.S. say that worried clients frequently call in with questions.

“A lot of residents are afraid to travel,” said Ariel Lopez, general manager at Acapulco Travel’s corporate office in Lake Forest. “It’s affecting our business. People are deciding not to go on vacation this year, waiting to see what will happen. People are afraid to go out of the country. They’re afraid they won’t be allowed to come back in.”

The Orange County-based company operates numerous travel agencies throughout the country — including many in Southern California. About 80% of Lopez’s clientele are Latinos living in the U.S. Many of them are legal residents.

Lopez said he’s seen at least a 20% dip in bookings since President Trump took office. Some clients who are legal permanent residents plan to wait to become naturalized U.S. citizens before they travel, he said. Others have canceled all-inclusive packages to Cancun.

Still, Lopez said he has yet to hear of a client not being allowed to return to the country by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at airports. He said he believes that most of the worries may be unwarranted and based more on perception than reality.

“It’s just rumors,” Lopez said. “They are listening to other people’s stories and maybe they don’t have all of the facts.”

There are some travelers delayed by immigration officials and sent to secondary inspection, but some of these legal residents may have stayed out of the U.S. longer than legally permitted, he said. Others may have had legal problems that may put their status in jeopardy.

For Johel Lima, four trips every year to El Salvador were a welcome tradition.

The 56-year-old legal permanent resident would put in long hours at work, including on weekends, for months on end so that he could break away to the land of his birth in the town of Ahuachapán.

Then Trump took office in January, and the trips stopped. His attempt to impose a ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries further weakened Lima’s resolve to return to El Salvador. When an acquaintance reported that immigration officials sent him to a secondary screening at an airport, despite being a green card holder, Lima postponed travel to his native country.

The construction worker put off his trip in the spring. Then he nixed thoughts of traveling during the summer. He hasn’t visited El Salvador since September — a drought, to him, from family and friends.

Then there was a mistake from his past that he feared could now come back to haunt him: a DUI arrest nearly 15 years ago.

Even though the Orange resident has traveled and never been bothered or delayed by immigration officials, he worries the next time will be different.

“Honestly, I’m scared that I won't be let back in,” Lima said.

Lima’s wife, Sylvia Arevalo, operates Santa Ana Travel & Tours agency, which is affiliated with Acapulco Travel. She said she’s seen a 25% to 30% drop in tickets sales to El Salvador since Trump was sworn in.

“People listen to the news and heard stories about some passengers being sent to secondary,” she said. “I have good clients who travel regularly who are no longer making trips to El Salvador.”

Some have opted for a workaround, opting to fly out of Tijuana instead of L.A., believing that returning through the San Ysidro port of entry may be less risky than contending with immigration officials at the airport.

For those green card holders who decide to travel abroad, Arevalo asks them to report back any problems. She said all have returned without issues.

Arevalo has tried to convince her husband to travel to El Salvador. He’s considering going in September.

Maybe.

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Follow Cindy Carcamo on Twitter @thecindycarcamo

Staff writer Anh Do contributed to this report.

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