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With their fate in the Trump administration's hands, 260,000 Salvadoran immigrants wait and worry

With their fate in the Trump administration's hands, 260,000 Salvadoran immigrants wait and worry
El Salvador's gang violence made it the murder capital of the world in 2015. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

At 9 years old, after her family left El Salvador, Karla Alvarado crossed the Rio Grande into Texas in an inner tube with two changes of clothes.

That was 20 years ago. Alvarado has lived in the U.S. ever since, for most of that time under a legal but temporary immigration status.

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Today, she has a college degree, a husband, a job as a registered nurse — and an intense fear that she's about to be told she has to return to a country she hasn't seen since childhood.

Since 2001, Alvarado, and about 262,000 other Salvadorans — including nearly 30,000 in Los Angeles — have been allowed to live and work in the U.S. under a program known as Temporary Protected Status.

The Trump administration appears headed toward decreeing an end to it on Monday.

"It's definitely heart-wrenching, I'm having anxiety like I've never had before," said Alvarado, 29, of Norristown in suburban Philadelphia. "I've been here since I was 9, I don't know anything else. I am American and this is my home."

Over the last several months, the administration has moved deliberately to phase out protections for immigrants from other countries, including 59,000 from Haiti and 5,300 Nicaraguans. The TPS program is supposed to provide a temporary haven for victims of natural disasters — not permanent permission to stay in the U.S., administration officials have stressed.

"The political decision is clear," said Jill Marie Bussey, director of advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, one of many groups advocating for the Salvadorans.

"They've explained to us that this administration wants to put the T — temporary — back in TPS."

But El Salvador presents a particularly difficult decision. Salvadorans are by far the largest group with protected status. They have held it since two earthquakes struck the Central American country in early 2001, killing more than 1,100 people and leaving 1 million others homeless.

In the nearly 17 years since, the shelter of temporary status has allowed Salvadorans to put down roots and work legally, and they have built careers or businesses, gotten mortgages and given birth to about 200,000 U.S. citizens. Nearly 13% of the 2 million Salvadorans living in the U.S. now hold the protected status.

As the Monday deadline for a decision approaches, U.S. mayors, the Chamber of Commerce and El Salvador's President Salvador Sánchez Cerén have all lobbied the new Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, trying to convince her to once again extend the protections — or at least to put off the end as long as possible.

Tyler Houlton, a Homeland Secretary spokesman, said the phone call with Cerén was "cordial and productive," but did not say which way Nielsen was leaning.

"The secretary has received advice from DHS staff, other federal agencies and interested stakeholders and intends to make a decision prior to Monday's deadline," he said.

Since the original designation, the U.S. has extended the protections 11 times. The last time, in 2016, the Obama administration found that El Salvador was still struggling to recover from the earthquakes, and that the "fiscal unemployment and security situations in El Salvador remain poor."

The administration's decision likely will have its greatest impact in Southern California, home to the country's largest population of Salvadoran immigrants.

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An estimated 49,000 protected Salvadorans live in California, the largest population of any state, according to a study by the Center for Migration Studies. Another study found that 8,700 households of TPS holders in California have mortgages.

Advocates argue that it would be a catastrophe to send long-term residents and their children back to El Salvador, a country struggling with a weak economy and racked by gang violence. El Salvador is one of the violent countries in the world, measured by its murder rate.

Nielsen herself, along with Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, has spoken in dramatic terms about the threat posed by MS-13, the violent gang with a base in El Salvador.

"These savage criminals are in our communities, and they are a deadly consequence of our unsecured borders and our failed immigration policies," she said last month.

Young Salvadorans are fleeing gang violence at an increasing rate; the country's education ministry said 39,000 students left school because of gang harassment or threats in 2015.

"The fact is, that the conditions that started the TPS in the first place haven't changed at all," San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele, a candidate for president, said in a telephone interview.

The country is far more violent than it was in 2001 and struggles to provide jobs for its own young people now, let alone any of the U.S. citizens who might have to return to El Salvador with their parents, Bukele said.

Salvadoran officials also worry that ending the protected status would be a major blow to their country's economy. People living in the U.S. sent more than $4.5 billion back to El Salvador in 2016, the largest amount in the country's history.

One in five families in El Salvador receives payments from a person in the U.S., which overall account for 17% of the country's gross domestic product, according to a recent study.

Elena Aguilar, who came to the U.S. illegally in 1996 with two children, says she sends money back to her mother in El Salvador every month. Since getting protected status, she has bought five rental houses and opened a clothing store.

"I have a future here, I work here," said Aguilar, 43, of York, Pa. "This is very unfair, after we're working for many years, and trying to do the best we can, and now they just want to kick us out, without anything."

Homeland Security officials have said they are sympathetic to long-term residents like Aguilar, but insist that it's bad policy to keep issuing temporary extensions. They have called on Congress to craft a permanent solution.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to allow long-term residents who have been covered by temporary status to apply to become permanent legal residents.

Advocates say that they don't expect any action, however, from a Congress already consumed with negotiations over other immigration issues, including the fate of nearly 700,000 young people at risk of deportation as a result of President Trump's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Twitter: @jtanfani

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