On a typical workday, David Acevedo uses his hands, his back and a forklift to move tons of lumber around a warehouse in Van Nuys.
His hours are not fixed, because incoming shipments of wood and outgoing orders to customers dictate the flow. He and fellow employees have to be flexible and available on short notice, working a six-hour shift one day, a 12-hour shift the next.
“They’re jumping off a forklift 150 times a day, up and down, strapping loads. It’s all physical labor,” said Kevin Kelley, one of the owners of Valencia Lumber and Panel.
Good employees are hard to find, Kelley said, so you try to hold onto the ones you’ve trained, invested in and know you can count on. That’s why, when President Trump announced his intention last year to revoke temporary protected status for people from El Salvador, Kelley was worried. He stood to lose one of his best employees, a Salvadoran man who had been able to work legally because of protected status granted by President George W. Bush after a 2001 earthquake in El Salvador. That employee would be Acevedo, whose nickname is “Chato.”
Acevedo, 46, grew up in El Salvador and has worked at Valencia for nearly two decades. A federal judge has blocked President Trump’s move to end TPS for people from El Salvador and a handful of other countries for now. But given the political winds and Trump’s frequent storming about immigration, TPS recipients face an uncertain future.
“These guys are rocks, and they’re a foundational part of the company,” Kelley said.
Qualifying for employer sponsorship is no cinch, though. It’s a long process, thanks partly to a massive backlog, and it’s expensive. Kelley estimated the company has spent $6,000 so far on legal costs, and the two Salvadoran employees have paid about $4,000 each themselves.
While there are no guarantees of approval, Chato recently learned that he had cleared the first hurdle. The U.S. Labor Department has OKd him to continue the application process with Immigration and Citizenship Services.
“We had to run want ads in the paper. You’re required to advertise to fill their jobs,” said Kelley, to see if citizens want them and have the qualifications. “I didn’t expect any responses but I got a dozen or so, and it was a head-scratching process.”
He hired one of the applicants for a newly created position, but the other ones were completely unfit for the job, he said.
“I had guys come in here who were unhirable anywhere,” Kelley said. “One was filthy, with his shirt up and his gut hanging out. I wouldn’t hire this guy in a million years.”
Acevedo said he has feared losing everything since Trump took office and began targeting immigrants.
“From one day to the next, you could be gone,” he said.
Acevedo entered the country illegally in the late ’90s after the combination of war and a wrecked economy ravaged his country, but he was granted protected status after the magnitude 7.7 earthquake devastated El Salvador.
At Valencia Lumber, Chato makes north of $17 an hour with medical and dental benefits, paid vacation and sick days, plus a 401(k). He got married, raised three kids with a wife who works at McDonald’s, and bought a house. His two eldest sons are electricians.
It’s not the narrative you hear from certain people in high places.
“An incredible amount of fear and uncertainty have been instilled, on purpose, by the administration,” said UCLA professor Matt Barreto, who saw California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent trip to El Salvador as a smart way to humanize immigrants and improve rather than strain relations with Central America.
“This no doubt is a direct challenge to Trump” by Newsom, Barreto said, “because Trump is spinning all these lies about Central Americans and Salvadorans. They’re in MS-13, they’re murdering people, they’re animals, the caravan is an invasion.”
Jessica Dominguez, an immigration attorney in the San Fernando Valley, said she has seen widespread panic among her clients, including those with legal status or protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Given Trump’s frequent outbursts, she said, some clients have expressed fears about filing any normal paperwork, including taxes, for fear of being targeted.
Kelley, who described himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, said Trump’s focus on a leaky border hasn’t been entirely misguided. Kelley said he, too, thinks the U.S. has to do a far better job of controlling immigration. But he thinks Trump’s antagonistic, polarizing nature makes thoughtful deliberation and fair compromise on complex issues impossible, and Congress isn’t any more useful.
“Whatever he gets criticized for or the government gets criticized for, he screams about why somebody else hasn’t fixed the problem and threatens to fire them, or to undermine them in the political process,” Kelley said.
By threatening to shut off the country to immigration, Kelley said, Trump may have incited a surge that federal agencies aren’t equipped to handle. He wonders why there’s not more focus on electronic surveillance rather than more walls, and more efficient processes for reviewing whether asylum seekers have legitimate cases, “rather than having them travel 2,000 miles to wind up at the border, sleeping under a bridge.”
Acevedo’s attorney, Leah Spivey, told me she’s pretty confident he’ll get a green card, but she guessed it could take a year or more for him to go through the next stage of review.
“It was a happy day,” Acevedo said, when he got word that he’s one step closer to not having to worry about getting booted out of the U.S. after 20 years of building a life here. “Fortunately, this is a job where they treat us well.”