SAN PABLO TACACHICO, El Salvador—When Fabio Salinas, 83, learned he needed two surgeries in 2015, he called his son, José a 57-year-old who lives in Glen Cove, New York. Along with his four other siblings who live in the U.S., José scraped together enough for his father’s medical bills, which totaled $7,000.
“I would be in the cemetery,” Fabio Salinas said, sitting outside his home in this town of 22,000 residents, about an hour-and-a-half from the capital San Salvador. He walks unsteadily even with the support of a cane, and he’s losing his eyesight.
Even barring any major procedure, the older Salinas estimates that he and his wife, Avelina, 76, spend about $400 a month on medicines and other health-related expenses. That money comes entirely from their children, who live in New York and Los Angeles. Now the aging couple is worried that their cash flow will dry up.
Like hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, two of their sons, including José, have Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a 17-year-old visa program that allows immigrants to live and work in the U.S. temporarily. Trump recently decided to end the program.
“I was sad when I heard the news,” said Fabio Salinas, who used to work as a farmer doing manual labor. “All I could do was pray to god for the president (Trump) who has done all this. What will become of the Salvadorans there who will come back if there is no way to live here?”
Salvadoran officials are worried, too. The end of TPS could deal a harsh blow to the country’s economy. In 2017, Salvadorans abroad sent more than $5 billion dollars to their families back home, according to the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. That represents 18 percent of El Salvador’s annual GDP, up from 17 percent the previous year, according to the bond credit rating agency Moody’s. And some 20 percent of the remittances sent to El Salvador come from TPS holders, the agency estimates.
In response to the announcement, Moody’s said in a statement: “the U.S. decision will have a long-term negative effect on El Salvador if it leads to massive deportations from the U.S., permanently decreasing remittances and affecting economic growth.”
Fabio and Avelina receive about $600 dollars a month for their basic expenses - $200 for food and basic utilities plus the $400 for medical expenses. About half of this comes from José, who works in landscaping in the Long Island area. This money goes a long way in a country where the minimum monthly salary is between $200 and $300 dollars a month, depending on the industry. The couple doesn’t have any retirement savings and don’t receive benefits from the government. Now that their son’s legal status is in question, the pair could be thrust into economic disarray.
“Even now it’s not enough. There could be a moment when I have to decide that I won’t pay the water or the gas or my phone,” Fabio said. “Where would I get that money if I can’t work?”
TPS was granted to Salvadorans after a series of deadly earthquakes struck the country in 2001. The status is meant for immigrants who cannot return to their home countries because their governments would not be able to receive them due to civil unrest, violence or a natural disaster. TPS has been renewed every 18 months for the past 17 years for Salvadorans, and currently allows nearly 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants to live and work legally in the U.S.
The Trump administration also announced the end of TPS for about 46,000 Haitians and 2,500 Nicaraguans. It is likely to announce the end of the program for 57,000 Hondurans in the coming months as well.
José was among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans who fled the country’s civil war, fought between leftist rebels and a U.S.-backed military government between 1980 to 1992. Some 75,000 people were killed during the war. José migrated in 1989, then returned to El Salvador for a short time before migrating again in 1993. By that year, an estimated 250,000 Salvadorans had pending asylum applications in the U.S.
A few years after receiving TPS, José brought his four children to the U.S. from El Salvador. Now they are adults with their own families.
With TPS, Salvadoran immigrants have been temporarily shielded from deportation and had better access to job opportunities. This translated to improved living conditions for relatives back in El Salvador.
“Both of them are sick so we are always sending them money,” José said about his parents during a phone interview. “Now we are really worried - and sad.”
The Salvadoran government was quick to respond to the announcement, but solutions are vague so far. In a press release the day of the announcement, the Ministry of Foreign Relations reiterated its “commitment to our compatriots [in the U.S.] in their search for alternatives that … allow stable immigrant status in the country.” On Jan 16, the Minister of Foreign Relations announced a plan to negotiate employment for Salvadoran deportees in Qatar, the Middle Eastern country that will host the 2022 World Cup.
The Ministry of Foreign Relations did not respond to a Univision request for further comment.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced the termination of TPS for El Salvador on Jan 8. According to the U.S. government, immigrants like José can now return to El Salvador because the country has sufficiently recovered from the 2001 earthquake.
But El Salvador still struggles with issues of violence and poverty among the worst in the world. In 2017, there were just under 4,000 homicides in the small Central American nation the size of Massachusetts. An estimated 41 percent of households in El Salvador live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
“We are an economy excessively dependent on remittances ... imagine the consequences [of losing them],” said Roberto Rubio, director of the National Foundation for Development, a Salvadoran research institute focused on socioeconomics and development. He predicts the decision could increase poverty and unemployment and strengthen El Salvador’s gangs. “Even in the best of situations, the impacts will be harsh.”
The Trump administration is giving TPS holders until September 2019 to return to El Salvador. Many are likely to stay in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants.
José has already consulted a lawyer, who told him he has no other legal options to stay in the country. He’s now exploring options for what to do next. His mom needs new hearing aids, which will cost $1,300.
“Without the remittances that they send us, what will become of our country?” Fabio wondered. Without them, “a lot of us might have already died because of a lack of money.”