Ulises Martinez will graduate from UNC Charlotte with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology in May.
He’s busy job-hunting, eager to start his career after working his way through school. He wakes up early to keep up with classes and his two part-time jobs, one at a paint store and one at the Latin American Coalition, a Charlotte immigrant rights organization.
But on Monday, Martinez got a text from a friend about news that could change all of that.
Martinez and his mother arrived in the United States from El Salvador when Martinez was just six months old. They’ve lived here legally with Temporary Protected Status, which the U.S. government grants to people from countries where it would be unsafe to return. About 200,000 Salvadorans living in the U.S. have had TPS since a series of earthquakes hit their country in 2001.
The Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that TPS will end for Salvadorans on Sept. 9, 2019. The department’s announcement said El Salvador has gotten significant international aid to help with earthquake recovery, and the end date is eighteen months away to provide for a smooth transition.
“The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exist,” the announcement said.
But advocates have pointed to the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for El Salvador, which urges people to reconsider travel to the country because of crime. The advisory says violent crime including murder and rape is common, gang activity is widespread and local police might not be able to help victims effectively.
For Martinez, moving to El Salvador would mean starting over in a country he does not remember at all. In Charlotte, he said, he’s created a life – a degree, a path to a career. His mom has worked as a cashier for years, Martinez said, supporting the family while he stayed home with his grandparents. He said she never took a day off.
“We’ve been here so long,” he said. “We’ve worked every day.”
Now he and his mom are just waiting, Martinez said, hoping someone in power will consider people like them.
Atenas Burrola, an immigration attorney who directs the Latin American Coalition’s Immigrant Integration Center, said many Salvadoran TPS holders are in a similar situation. The government will likely issue new rules soon, she said, so everyone has to wait and see if those rules provide an avenue for a new form of legal status.
Some TPS holders can take action now to protect themselves, Burrola said. If someone is in a long-term relationship with a U.S. citizen, for example, she said they might want to get married. People who have been victims of certain types of crimes and cooperate with law enforcement may be eligible for U visas.
Many families with TPS have had children in the years since they moved to the United States. In a 2017 study, the Center for Migration Studies of New York found that about 5,900 Salvadorans with TPS live in North Carolina, and they have about 6,200 children who are American citizens because they were born here.
These families face a heartbreaking decision, Burrola said.
“If they go back to El Salvador, they almost certainly will have economic difficulties,” she said, along with facing a level of violence Burrola compared to a war zone.
“Do they leave the child with some caretaker? Or do they become undocumented and go into the shadows – which is not just bad for them, but bad for the economy.”
Carmen Salmeron said her top priority is for her family to stay together.
But she’s worried about what will happen if the family’s main breadwinner, Daniel Salmeron, loses TPS after 20 years in the United States.
For the past 15 years, Daniel Salmeron has owned a small construction company. He employs six people, he said.
“When TPS is canceled I’m left without documents,” Daniel Salmeron said through an interpreter. “I wouldn’t be able to work. I wouldn’t be able to drive, because I wouldn’t have a license anymore. I would feel obligated to return back to my country, something that I just don’t want to do.”
The Salmerons are concerned about the violence and lack of opportunity in El Salvador – especially for their 10-year-old daughter, Amy.
Amy is an American citizen and a good student in her fifth grade class, Carmen Salmeron said. Photos and trophies marking her achievements in soccer and taekwondo decorate the Salmerons’ north Charlotte living room.
“Her life is here,” her mother said. “I mean, what will we take her back to?”
The Salmerons said they don’t believe government leaders are thinking about the children who will be affected by changes to TPS.
“We want the president to deliver on things that he’s promised,” Carmen Salmeron said. “On the campaign trail, President Trump said he was only going to go after the criminals, and that he was never going to touch any of the good people. And now he’s going after the good people.”
Daniel Salmeron agreed, saying he understands why the government deports people who have committed crimes.
“But the thing is, we people who have TPS, we’re not that,” he said. “We’re good people, we work hard, we pay our taxes.”
“We don’t deserve for the government to be coming after us like this.”