Long Island Communities Fret Over Salvadorans Losing Protection Status

Jan 11, 2018

Long Island is home to many large Salvadoran communities. Thousands of them now face deportation after President Trump revoked their protected status this week. That's left immigrant families in turmoil, some local officials worried about the economy and others saying it is time for them to go.

At a community center in Brentwood on Long Island, immigrants get help with legal paperwork and social services. And on Tuesday, the phone calls and questions started coming in. What do they do now?

Aminata Romero crossed the border illegally in 1998. Three years later, a pair of earthquakes devastated her native country. She and nearly 200,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. were given temporary protected status, or TPS. The humanitarian program protects immigrants from being deported to countries ravaged by war and natural disasters. The U.S. renewed El Salvador's TPS designation 10 times until Monday.

Romero was surprised. She had followed the rules, and every 18 months, she checked in with immigration and had her fingerprints taken. Now, she expects to lose her job with the county government, as well as her health benefits and pension.

But like many other Salvadorans, Romero says she'll stay in the shadows so she can continue to send money back to her two daughters. TPS status was never meant to lead to U.S. citizenship. It was just a temporary work permit. Now these immigrants have few, if any, options to stay legally.

Walter Barrientos, a community organizer for Make The Road in New York, which advocates for immigrants, says, “For many of them, it's not really a choice. I think many of them are being forced to remain in this country undocumented. They have children here who are U.S. citizens. They have businesses. They have mortgages.”

It's not just immigrants who will be impacted – also, the community. For Long Island in particular, undocumented immigration is the only thing that has kept the population from declining.

“And now you are seeing this massive exodus of people because they're being pushed out without this program,” Berrios says.

Sentiment is split here. Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin represents parts of Long Island. He says the program was never intended to allow these immigrants to stay permanently, and the fact that some may have been here for 17 years underscores how broken the immigration system is. But other local officials worry about the economic impact. Suffolk County estimates ending TPS will cost the local economy $638 million, about one percent of the county's GDP.

Planning Commissioner Theresa Ward says, “It would be this immediate economic drain.”

Fewer people paying taxes and buying things, also fewer workers in industries like construction and retail. Ward worries as many as 1,070 mortgages could go to foreclosure.

“When you spread that 1,070 homes around the county, it's going to bring all the homes right around it – those property values down,” Berrios says.

So far, the Trump administration has ended designation for three countries – El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua – because officials say those countries have recovered. Immigrants point to ongoing violence and political instability, and they hope Congress will intercede. Still, many are preparing to upend their lives.

“We are still very much trying to deal with this and trying to figure out how we will be able to make adjustments and preparations for the worst-case scenarios,” says Rodman Cerano. He and his sister were born in the U.S. Their parents are TPS recipients and put them through college. But right now, he says, their future is uncertain.