Salvadoran immigrants in Maine say they are worried that the Trump administration’s plan to end a long-running but temporary residency program will also end the American dream for many, disrupting families and local economies.
Manuel Rodriquez is a native of El Salvador who fled its civil war decades ago, eventually landing in Maine and working on Portland’s waterfront, where many Central American immigrants have found their footing. Now he works at Tu Casa, an El Salvadoran restaurant that has been a Portland staple for 18 years.
Rodriquez is a U.S. citizen, so his residency won’t be at risk when a program that has been providing temporary protected status, or TPS, to hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran immigrants to the U.S. ends in 2019. But his brother, who lives in Maine and received TPS designation after a devastating 2001 earthquake in El Salvador, will be at risk.
“They’re concerned about that. They’ve been here so long and they really don’t want to go back, they want to stay here. But what can you do, it’s just life,” Rodriquez says.
“I think it’s very mean-spirited and it certainly is going to disrupt the lives of people in Maine and across the country,” says Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District.
Pingree says she’s not sure just how many Salvadorans may be living in Maine — Rodriquez guesses at least a thousand — but she argues that they and other immigrants whose status grows more uncertain with each day of the Trump administration are integral parts of the state’s community and its economic future.
“They’re a critical part of our workforce and particularly in the state of Maine, we can’t afford to send workers out of the country who are valued parts of our communities, working in businesses that are desperate to find more workers,” she says.
The TPS program was created in 1990 to offer refuge to immigrants whose safety was imperiled by war or natural disasters back home.
When Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen this week announced its termination for Salvadorans, she said the humanitarian crisis created by the 2001 earthquakes “no longer exists.” She cited U.S. reconstruction aid to the country over the last 17 years, and recent repatriations of tens of thousands of Salvadorans who had fled, as evidence that the temporary protection was no longer justified.
But immigrant advocates such as Susan Roche of Maine’s Immigration Legal Advocacy Project say it has effectively become a permanent program, and it should be continued out of consideration for the families that have become rooted here, particularly their American-born children.
“These are U.S.-citizen children that have known nothing except for Maine and the United States. They’re part of our schools. Are the parents going to take them back to El Salvador where there’s a lot of danger, there’s gang violence, really dangerous place for kids? Or are they going to leave the kids here in someone else’s care?” she says.
Back at Tu Casa, Rodriquez says that’s his brother’s biggest worry. It could turn out that his brother is forced back to El Salvador and have to decide whether to leave his children, who are U.S. citizens, behind.
“The parents leave and the children stay here. It’s like a broken family. It doesn’t sound too good. I mean just leaving the children here in America, it’s difficult,” he says.
Pingree says she will work on legislation to protect TPS communities. She says action might be possible as Republicans and Democrats try to reach a deal on overall immigration reform measure.