Restaurants are just one way Salvadoran immigrants have reshaped our region. Image by Dan Reed.

Immigrants from El Salvador are one of the DC area’s largest foreign-born populations. Many Salvadorans arrived here decades ago under a federal program that allowed them to flee a civil war and, later, two devastating earthquakes. But the program could soon end, which could have major impacts on our region’s neighborhoods.

El Salvador is one of thirteen countries with Temporary Protective Status (TPS), including Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Sudan, and Syria. The Department of Homeland Security can grant TPS status for three reasons—ongoing war or conflict, natural disaster, or other extraordinary conditions. Once a country has TPS status, its citizens in the US may apply for individual TPS. TPS is not a legal status, but it does allows holders to apply for a work permit and a driver’s license, which in turn allows him or her to open a bank account, rent an apartment, buy a home etc.  

El Salvador first gained TPS status during its civil war, which occurred from 1980 to 1992, and received another designation in 2001 after two devastating earthquakes. Thirty percent of El Salvador’s population fled the country following the civil war, and between 500,000 and 1 million people emigrated here. Today, there are 190,000 Salvadorans on TPS in the United States, more than the other twelve TPS countries combined.

Many of them live in the DC area. There are 288,000 Salvadorans in the region, making up one-third of its Hispanic community. It’s the highest concentration of Salvadorans in the nation.

However, that could change if TPS expires on March 9, 2018. While it’s been renewed continuously since 2001, the Trump administration doesn’t seem interested in doing that. In a June visit to Haiti, another country with TPS, then-Homeland Security head John Kelly told Haiti’s new president that he should start preparing to repatriate Haitian citizens with TPS, which expires in six months. Advocates for Salvadorans in the DC area are getting worried.

Implications for DC’s immigrant enclaves

The Trump administration’s approach to TPS may have negative effects on DC’s immigrant enclaves.  Consistent TPS renewals for El Salvador sent a message to Salvadorans that they could build a life here. Many did, and have become fully contributing members to our society.

One TPS holder, who lives in Pennsylvania, recently visited The Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), a non-profit in DC that helps Latino immigrants.  She told her story, although she was too afraid to share her name.  She received TPS when she was 9 years old.  She went to high school and college in the US, where she earned a degree in nursing.  She now works as a nursing supervisor at a hospital in Pennsylvania.  In an instant her entire life could be turned upside down.  

Some TPS holders, who have until now been law-abiding residents who pay taxes, own homes, run businesses, and have families. A survey of TPS recipients found that they are more involved in their communities than undocumented immigrants. Over 80% of the nation’s TPS holders are involved in the labor force, with the largest concentrations in construction, food services, and landscaping. Thirty percent of the nation’s TPS holders have mortgages.

But now, some may decide to ‘go underground.’ They may choose to liquidate their assets and move into the informal economy.  It is, after all, a ‘Sophie’s choice’ to ask TPS holders to choose between leaving their families or going underground.  

This doesn’t bode well for the DC area’s immigrant enclaves. Maryland and Virginia have two of the largest populations of Salvadorans in the nation, and Hispanic immigrants have been vital in reviving inner suburbs like Bailey’s Crossroads in Northern Virginia or Langley Park and Wheaton in Maryland. They opened businesses, bought houses, embedded themselves in their neighborhoods.

If numerous Salvadoran TPS holders sell their houses, or simply abandon them, neighborhoods will take a hit.  Empty houses can quickly become havens for prostitution, drug use, and other social ills.  Some landlords may also take advantage of people who lose their status but stay on in the US to be with their families.  Some will put off (or simply refuse to make) repairs because tenants without status aren’t likely to call municipal housing authorities.  

Revocation could also contribute to the very kinds of corruption and lawlessness that many TPS holders fear in their home countries.  Fear of deportation, for example, might make Salvadorans who lose their status afraid to talk to police when they witness crimes.  Detectives will have trouble solving cases.  Over time, criminals will seek out these neighborhoods because they know witnesses aren’t likely to come forward.

People in the underground economy are usually too afraid to report intimate crimes like child abuse or domestic violence as well.  They are just as unlikely to call a city office to report a landlord who raises the rent above allowed amounts and then threatens to call Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents if it isn’t paid.  People in the underground economy are also likely to take justice into their own hands—meting out (or paying someone to mete out) street justice, which is often bloody and inconsistent with human right’s norms.

Immigrants invested in our region, and it shows.  Eliminating TPS for El Salvador, when coupled with the anxiety caused by Trump’s election, would most likely spur disinvestment.

TPS holders prepare for the worst

Not surprisingly, Salvadoran TPS holders are terrified.  For TPS holders who have lived in this country since they were children, fear of the unknown is paramount.  For those with children born in the United States, the fear is seeing your family split between two countries.  And for both groups, the uncertainty is its own form of agony.  It is hard to make plans when you don’t know where you’ll be living in six months’ time.  

Given the Trump administration’s aggressive, sometimes hostile posture towards immigrants, it is important that TPS holders are prepared for the worst case scenario.  Those with minor children need to create guardianship agreements so that their children will not be put into foster care if they are subject to deportation.  

They may also want to designate a Power of Attorney for financial matters. Currently, TPS holders can operate in the formal economy—they have bank accounts, credit cards, and even loans. However, they need up-to-date IDs to complete financial transactions.  Unfortunately, the most common form of identification, a TPS driver’s license, is short term, with the expiration date set automatically to the country’s TPS expiration date. If a TPS renewal is rejected, a holder has no way to get a replacement government ID, and many banks will not let their clients close accounts with expired IDs.  Likewise, municipalities usually require up to date IDs to enforce property transfers—something a parent with TPS might want make to an adult child with US citizenship.  

What are the implications of all of this uncertainty?  To be fair, renewals, usually conducted every 18 months, have always been a source of anxiety.  However, Salvadorans have been exceptionally lucky.  Since its 2001 designation, El Salvador’s TPS designation has always been renewed.  After the country rebuilt its damaged infrastructure, other major problems, such as gang violence surfaced, justifying renewal.  Many fear Trump will end El Salvador’s TPS at the worst possible time—as the country’s murder rate skyrockets.  

Although TPS was originally established to address discriminatory practices in how asylum cases are processed, critics will contend that TPS holders are not guaranteed renewal and should be thankful for the time they had here. But these people have built lives here and shaped our region in myriad ways. It may be immigrants’ who have the most to lose if TPS is not renewed, but in the end, all of us will suffer the consequences.

Carolyn Gallaher is a geographer and associate professor at American University.  Her research interests include gentrification in DC, the emergence of “ethnoburbs” in Maryland and Virginia, payday lending, and tenant empowerment.  Previously, she studied the militia movement in the US and Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.  She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and son.