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'Everything's suspended': Future uncertain for Salvadorans living in Minnesota on TPS

Kevin Machado is among 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States facing possible deportation or undocumented residency here following a recent revocation of temporary protected status the federal government granted in the early 2000s. Maureen McMullen / Rivertown Multimedia1 / 2
Williams Ortiz Arizmendi works as program coordinator for Hispanic Outreach of Goodhue County, a Red Wing nonprofit that has been offering free and reduced-cost legal advice from an immigration lawyer who visits once a week. Maureen McMullen / Rivertown Multimedia2 / 2

Mauricio Trejo considers himself deeply Minnesotan.

It's the state where he met his wife, where his two children were born and where most of his neighbors share his abiding love for the Minnesota Vikings.

The long-time Twin Cities resident said he knows the state like the back of his hand.

Trejo's memories of his birthplace in El Salvador, however, are fewer and harsher. He didn't have shoes. He was alone most of the time. He was always hungry.

Now, Trejo, 29, faces the possibility of returning to a country he hasn't been to in nearly two decades.

Trejo is among more than 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States with temporary protected status, or TPS, after a pair of earthquakes upheaved the Central American country in 2001.

The Trump administration announced it wouldn't renew TPS designations for Salvadorans, which is set to expire Sept. 9. 2019. After then, their immigration status will revert to what it was before.

"My whole life is falling apart right now," Trejo said. "I've never committed a crime or hurt anybody. But all of a sudden, I'm being sentenced to go somewhere I didn't even grow up."

Homeland Security officials said conditions in El Salvador have returned to their original condition before the earthquakes. The decision didn't factor gang violence and high homicide rates, which is among the highest in Central America.

Although recipients can apply for an extension every two years, proponents of Trump's decision say the designation was never meant to be permanent.

Congress created TPS in 1990 to shield foreign nationals from deportation as a result of destabilization, ongoing conflict or other catastrophic events.

The decision to end TPS for Salvadorans follows similar terminations for Haitians weeks earlier, as well as people from Nicaragua, Sudan and Honduras in recent months.

Salvadorans made up the largest share of TPS recipients, and many, like Trejo, were allowed to work and get their driver's licenses.

According to the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, some TPS recipients may be eligible for different statuses. For others, the agency said only Congressional action will allow them to stay.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said in a statement she'd support legislation to overturn the decision.

"The decision to end Temporary Protected Status for people from El Salvador is another part of the Trump-Pence administration's cruel anti-immigrant agenda," McCollum said. "Sadly, Speaker (Paul) Ryan and House Republicans are marching in lockstep with President Trump's anti-immigrant agenda and blocking humane immigration legislation from being considered."

According to the Minnesota Demographer's Office, about 13,000 Salvadorans live in Minnesota, but the figure doesn't include information about immigration status.

A spokesman for McCollum's office estimated the number Salvadorans living in Minnesota under TPS is likely fewer than a thousand.

'Slap in the face'

Kevin Machado had been expecting the TPS termination.

He moved Minnesota from El Salvador as a 13-year-old. For much of the journey, he was alone.

Although he came to the United States without documentation, Machado gained TPS a year later when the earthquakes struck his birthplace.

Adjusting to his new home in Red Wing, where his father had been living, wasn't easy. The state's biting cold winters and language barriers compounded the homesickness he felt for family members left behind.

Machado came to see the river city as his hometown. He went to school and made friends there. He loved the area's bluffs, rivers and lakes — a welcome contrast to the gang violence he witnessed as a child.

"It's beautiful, it's peaceful — nothing like my country of origin," Machado said. "I felt free, I felt alive."

Machado has called Minnesota home for more than 18 years.

The 31-year-old welder maintains fairly independent political beliefs but said the election of President Trump made the decision seem like an inevitability.

The decision not to renew TPS felt like "a slap in the face," Machado said.

"We applied (for TPS), we trusted the government," he said. "If they were willing to give us this opportunity, we would not let them down."

Family worries

Machado now lives West St. Paul where he shares a spotless apartment with his girlfriend of two years.

The couple have been looking forward to vacationing in Yosemite and San Francisco later this year. Now, their future plans together could also have to include moving to a different country.

As Machado spoke, seated under a wall hanging in his living room that reads "home," his girlfriend was away working on the stairs in her mother's house.

If he has to move, Machado said his girlfriend would likely move with him, but it would mean leaving her family.

"I love her very much and plan to spend the rest of my life with her, but right now everything's suspended," Machado said. "I don't have an answer right now."

The possibility of TPS termination has weighed on Trejo's family since officials announced similar decisions for other countries with the designation.

Trejo recently picked up his daughter from school early to speak with an immigration lawyer. She asked why she was leaving school early: "Is it because you're getting deported?"

"It's kind of hard to hide it from them, because if you have to worry about it and talk about it," Trejo said. "My daughter's 10, so she understands. It's awful."

Roughly two-thirds of Salvadorans on TPS have American-born children, according to ILCM, a reality that's led to worries about their children's fate.

Several of Trejo's family members living in the U.S. with TPS struggle with similar concerns.

His nieces and nephews were born here and don't speak Spanish. Their primary caretakers could have to move back to El Salvador in the next year and a half.

"Where are they going to go? They can't be by themselves," Trejo said. "Foster care? Is that seriously the best we can do?"

Legal options

Few legal routes exist for TPS recipients to gain permanent residence.

Trejo said fees for his immigration lawyer will likely exceed $10,000, a costly burden that won't guarantee his re-entry.

He will still have to go back to El Salvador as his case processes.

In Red Wing, a local organization aims to connect Latino immigrants with legal assistance for free or a reduced price.

Williams Ortiz Arizmendi, the program coordinator at Hispanic Outreach of Goodhue County, said the TPS decision will affect at least two local families, one of whom owns a house there.

According to the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota, roughly one-third of Salvadorans under TPS own a home.

"With TPS being done, I imagine that will crumble down and he could lose the house," Ortiz Arizmendi said."You can't keep your well-paying job because you don't have documentation to do so."

Every Tuesday, an attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota comes to the outreach center to offer community members free and reduced-price advice and representation.

ILCM also offers assistance through a hotline during certain hours.

Although Hispanic Outreach serves a number of communities throughout the county, Ortiz Arizmendi said legal assistance isn't easily accessible for people living in rural communities.

Many will have to travel to Rochester or the Twin Cities to seek an attorney or services in Spanish, he said.

Future plans

Machado hasn't yet contacted an immigration lawyer.

He said he hopes to find a route stay in the country legally, but mentally, Machado's preparing to go back to El Salvador.

His immediate plans for a return to his birthplace include visiting his grandfather, uncles and cousins, whom he hasn't seen in years.

Machado said he would likely work for a few months to save money.

An avid outdoorsman, Machado said he's considering ways he can apply his knowledge of wildlife to work in tourism or education industries.

From there, he said he might join his mother, who lives in Italy, before possibly moving on to either Switzerland or the Netherlands.

Still, Machado said he would miss the freedoms he's enjoyed in the United States.

"I can think whatever, say whatever," he said. "Now, a lot of freedoms are going to be taken away from me. If that means I have to leave here because they don't want to give me my freedom, I'll leave."

Trejo's plans, if he returns to El Salvador, are more uncertain.

The U.S. State Department earlier this month advised Americans against traveling there, warning potential visitors of gang activity and violent crime.

Trejo no longer has family in El Salvador and knows very little about the country.

Even a short visit to his birthplace, he said, is unfathomable.

"I've blocked it out so many times, now it's becoming a reality, which is killing me," he said.