BROWN: Then Trump came for the Salvadorans

SHARE BROWN: Then Trump came for the Salvadorans
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Manuel Pena, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador when he was 16, visited Centro Romero, a social service that specializes in helping Latin American immigrants after learning his legal status is changing. Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Manuel Pena, 43, a truck driver from Little Village, was among nearly 200,000 El Salvador natives in the U.S. who woke up Monday to the bad news that the Trump administration is revoking their legal status.

If the idea is that Pena and the others are going to voluntarily “go back where they came from,” somebody might want to think again.

“I will try to stay here,” said Pena, who is married, owns his own home and business, and has two children who are U.S. citizens by virtue of having been born here.

Pena and his Salvadoran ex-patriates have been living in the U.S. legally since at least 2001, when President George W. Bush gave them Temporary Protected Status after a pair of earthquakes ravaged the Central American nation.

That protected status had been renewed numerous times since then, first by Bush and later by President Barack Obama.

Chicago does not have a large Salvadoran community, but immigration groups estimated the area is home to as many as 3,000 individuals who could be affected by the policy change.

These are individuals who paid taxes and passed criminal background checks at regular 18-month intervals to preserve their status–and the all-important right to work that goes with it.

But the Trump team, in keeping with the anti-immigrant policies that helped elect him, has decided to show them the door by September 2019, along with the Nicaraguans, Haitians and DACA recipients whose temporary legal status he previously revoked. Hondurans are expected to be next.

Let me repeat: these folks currently have legal status, but under Trump’s plan they will become undocumented. Just as with other undocumented residents, that doesn’t mean they’re going anywhere.

In Pena’s case, there is no reason to go back to El Salvador if he can avoid it. There’s nothing for him there, he said. Even his parents are dead.

Pena said he was 16 when he came to the U.S. in 1992 to flee a long-running civil war in his home country and has never returned. For three years he sought asylum here but was denied.

Then the earthquakes and subsequent Temporary Protected Status designation created an opening for him and hundreds of thousands of other Salvadorans who came to the U.S. during that time or were already here.

One of the problems with the program is that it does not provide a path to citizenship or permanent resident status, even as the continued renewals created the illusion of a permanent life.

Pena made the most of his opportunity. He learned to be a truck driver and now owns his own business with three semi-trailer trucks.

He and his Mexican wife have two children, ages 8 and 14. When the oldest child reaches 21, the boy can apply to keep his father in the country.

Until then, Pena will do what he can to avoid being deported.

He said it’s too dangerous to move his family to El Salvador, where criminal gangs hold sway over large portions of the country.

“I cannot live in El Salvador,” he said. “What am I going to do in El Salvador? I don’t know anyone.”

A more immediate problem for Pena and other Salvadorans is that their employment authorization expires March 9. Without the card that allows him to work, he won’t be able to renew his Illinois driver’s license, which expires the same day.

That’s what brought Pena on Monday to Centro Romero, a social service agency in Edgewater that specializes in helping Latin American immigrants.

Jose Ventura, the agency’s legal services director, said Pena should be able to apply in a few weeks for a work permit that will carry him through to 2019, but approval could be months away.

I asked Pena if he understands why this is happening now.

“I just think it is because they don’t want us here,” he said.

True, but “they” don’t speak for many of us.

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