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No longer 'protected': A migrant policy shift upends deeply rooted lives

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Over the past 20 years, Salvadoran migrant Julio Perez has built a legal life in the United States under government protection. But what seemed secure threatens to come crashing down. Part 5 of On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Julio Perez now lives with his wife, Marina, and son, Moises, in Boston. Mr. Perez and his wife received Temporary Protected Status after his home country of El Salvador was hit by earthquakes in 2001. He is campaigning for TPS beneficiaries to be given permanent US residency; the Trump administration plans to revoke the program.

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Julio Perez, from El Salvador, lives and works in the United States perfectly legally. But next September, if the Trump administration has its way, he and his family will be expelled. Mr. Perez is living in the US under a program known as Temporary Protected Status, designed for migrants whose home countries have been deemed too unsafe for them to be sent home. President Trump is now rolling back the scheme, which has benefited nearly 500,000 people, as part of his campaign to cut down on migration. That leaves Perez, his wife, and 13-year-old son in limbo, their future up in the air. But they are not resigned to their fate; Perez has joined a migrant-led campaign to halt the deportation of TPS holders and to persuade Congress to legislate a path to permanent residency. If they lose, Perez says he will return to El Salvador and start over. “But we don’t want to go, and that’s why we keep fighting until the last days.”

Julio Perez pulls a card from his bulky brown wallet. It is this US government-issued piece of plastic that makes it legal for Mr. Perez to live and work here, to chase the American dream of social mobility.

The card lists his name, date of birth, his nationality – and an expiry date: Sept. 9, 2019.

In the past, that deadline would have meant it was time to re-register for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program for migrants whose home countries are in such turmoil that repatriation is deemed unsafe. Perez has extended 12 times since his country, El Salvador, was rocked by two calamitous earthquakes in 2001.

But now President Trump is rolling back the decades-old program, arguing that temporary protections have become permanent and that it is time for migrants to go home. One by one, countries whose citizens had TPS status have been struck off the list.

And so Perez knows that the life that he has built here is due to come crashing down next year – his steady job, his safe home, his 13-year-old son’s education – all terminated.

That prospect led him to join a national migrant-led campaign to halt the deportation of TPS holders and to persuade Congress to legislate a path to permanent residency. Other activist groups have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its handling of TPS. On Oct. 3, a federal judge in California hearing the case issued a temporary injunction against any deportations.

In public, Perez puts an optimistic spin on these efforts and his chances of staying in the US. Some mornings, though, he wakes up and thinks, that’s another day gone, one day fewer until termination.

“People are really afraid. This is limbo. We don’t know where we’ll be in 10 months,” he says.

Perez is not one of the unauthorized foreigners living illegally in the United States, of whom there are between 11 million and 22 million, according to different estimates. He is part of a much smaller group of 436,866 people from 10 countries who have been given explicit permission to stay in the country because of their origins.

By far the largest number are from El Salvador, whose citizens were first granted TPS protection in the 1990s in the aftermath of its civil war. Around 12,000 live in Massachusetts, including thousands of Salvadorans in East Boston, an immigrant-friendly peninsula pressed between Boston’s international airport and its harbor.

“They’re all trying to figure out what to do and praying that TPS doesn’t run out,” says Lydia Edwards, a Boston city councilor who represents the ward. Among them are migrants who own houses and businesses and now face “huge decisions” about personal and financial questions, she adds.

TPS holders pay taxes and social security and must have a clean criminal record in order to renew their permits every 18 months. “I can’t think of another group of people who are more patriotic about this country,” says Ms. Edwards.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Children of TPS families perform The Last Dream, an event intended to build support for migrant families living in the US under Temporary Protected Status (TPS.) The Trump administration has cancelled the TPS program and given a deadline of September 2019 for Salvadoran recipients to leave the country.

Perez lives in a two-bedroom apartment in East Boston with his wife, Marina, who also has TPS, and Moises, their US-born son.He came to Boston in 1994 after first making his way from his village in El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico by bus and train to the border at Tijuana. Together with hundreds of other migrants he waited for his chance to cross on foot at night, stole past the border agents and made his way to the home of a relative in Los Angeles.

His motivation was opportunity, a belief that he could make a better life in the US. “I knew one day I would come here, and stay here,” he says.

El Salvador was poor and the civil war, which ended in 1992, had seeded a generation of men with guns who formed gangs and preyed on the powerless. But Perez hadn’t come to the US to claim asylum. He had come to work, as he had been doing since leaving school aged 16.

A friend in Boston sent him $500 for a plane ticket. Two days later he flew there, one more undocumented worker chasing a paycheck, one more migrant taking English classes on weekends. It wasn’t hard to find a job; restaurants didn’t ask too many questions. But Perez saw that as an unauthorized immigrant he could only go so far.

In January and February 2001 two massive earthquakes shook El Salvador. They killed more than a thousand people and caused destruction that officials estimated would cost $2.8 billion to repair. The relatives Perez had left behind in El Salvador were unharmed. But his life in the US was about to change.

In March that year, President George W. Bush declared that Salvadorans in the US would be eligible for TPS, so they could find work more easily and remit money to their stricken country. The offer even extended to more than 1,000 migrants then in detention awaiting deportation to El Salvador.

Perez called his boss at the seafood restaurant where he worked. “Don’t wait for me tomorrow,” he told him. The next day he gathered his documents; at nine o’clock, when the doors opened, he was one of the first in line, ahead of hundreds of other hopefuls, to file his application for TPS.

A month later, his card arrived. “That was the best day of my life in the US when I had that document in my hand,” he says.

Being legal meant Perez could find a better job at a hotel in Boston, where he stayed for several years, working his way up to doorman. He grew into a more settled life, volunteering more at his church, which is where he met Marina. They married in 2004, and Moises was born the following year.

Six years ago, Perez was hired as a part-time custodian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Today he rides the subway on weekdays to one of the university’s art museums where he’s a team leader, a full-time position that provides health insurance and paid vacation and an annual salary of around $40,000. After paying $1,300 in rent his family’s biggest monthly expense is tuition fees for Moises, who attends a private Catholic school on a partial scholarship.

Marina works in the school kitchen. She finds it hard to express fully the anxiety she feels over what ending TPS means for Moises, who is in eighth grade. “I want to be here. El Salvador is a good country. But there you don’t have opportunities for our child, not like here,” she says.

When the Trump administration announced in January that it was ending protected status for Salvadorans, Perez jumped into action. He joined a statewide committee of TPS holders and volunteered to represent TPS holders employed at Harvard. From a life in the shadows – working off the books, keeping his head down – Perez had emerged as a public advocate. “If you don’t fight for your own cause nobody is going to do it for you,” he says.

In most respects, TPS holders have been fortunate; their permits shielded them from the deportations of unauthorized immigrants that began under President Barack Obama and have continued under Mr. Trump. But their registration also means that authorities now know who they are and where they are and when their permits expire. In theory, that means they will have no choice but to go home.

Ana Alonzo, an attorney at the Salvadoran consulate in Boston, is skeptical. “Frankly, these people are not going to leave,” she says, noting that many have children in school.

“How are you going to take your kids to a country that they’ve never been?” she asks.

The US government’s own assessment, made public by the lawsuit, warned that deported TPS beneficiaries would likely cross illegally back into the US, given their deep ties to the country. Others may preempt deportation by melting back into the unauthorized population.

For Perez, that’s not an option. If he loses his protected status he will move back with his family to El Salvador and start over again. “We don’t want to go, and that’s why we keep fighting until the last days,” he says. “And we’re optimistic that we’re going to get something.”

On a recent weekday morning, Perez and fellow committee members trooped into City Hall in Boston to meet with Edwards and staffers of other councilors. They were joined by a dozen or so TPS holders making a three-month bus journey across the country to lobby politicians and raise awareness of their plight.

After other speakers had their turn, Perez, who has a brush mustache and wears glasses, rose from his chair. Speaking in fluent, accented English, he said he was proud to call himself a Bostonian and that as a migrant he had become part of society. “We are hard workers and we have contributed to this nation in many ways,” he told the councilors.

Two days later, Perez called his supervisor at Harvard to ask for time off. The bus needed a driver for the next leg of its journey and Perez had agreed to fill in. It would be another week of advocacy, of making the case for staying here and staying here legally.

“We don’t want TPS anymore. Our campaign is about permanent residency,” he says.

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