When the Trump administration revoked protections against another group of immigrants Monday, a familiar sense of disappointment settled upon members of Utah’s immigrant community.
Since President Donald Trump took office, El Salvador is the fourth country whose citizens have lost Temporary Protected Status, a program that provides humanitarian relief for foreigners whose countries are hit with natural disasters or other strife.
The 200,000 formerly protected Salvadoran immigrants throughout the country — by far the largest beneficiaries of the program — will have a year and a half to either leave the country, obtain another legal form of residency or face deportation.
Utah is home to 1,600 of those immigrants, as well as 1,000 of their U.S.-born children, according to the Center for American Progress. On average, they have lived in the U.S. for 20 years.
Monday’s decision is “heartbreaking” because it shows that “the administration has little regard for families,” said Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a nonprofit that provides immigration and health services to Utah Latinos.
“We’re talking about people who have created a life here, who have been in the country with permission, contributing in every way possible, who now have to go back to a country they haven’t lived in for decades,” Garza said.
Protections for Salvadorans were implemented after earthquakes struck the Central American country in 2001, but Garza drew attention to a travel warning issued by the State Department last February.
It warns U.S. citizens of ecifically citing homicide rates and “common” occurrences of extortion, assault and robbery.
“The government knows it’s dangerous for people to go back to El Salvador,” Garza said “It’s concerning for us in the immigrant rights movement that we’re sending people out to danger.”
The benefit, which includes work authorization, can be renewed up to 18 months at a time by the Homeland Security secretary. Critics say it has proved anything but temporary — with many beneficiaries staying years after the initial justification applies.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Associated Press last week that short-term extensions are not the answer.
“Getting them to a permanent solution is a much better plan than having them live six months to 12 months to 18 months,” she said.
Garza said beneficiaries always knew that protections through the Temporary Protected Status program could be taken away at any time. He compared it to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to work and attend school without fear of deportation. By order of Trump, that program will expire March 6.
The 18-month grace period is not enough time for Salvadoran families to plan, Garza said, and it’s “virtually impossible” for them to stay.
One option for those people to qualify for legal residency is through family ties — having either a spouse, child over 21 or other immediate family member petition for them to become legal permanent residents. But the wait time is “pretty abysmal,” said immigration attorney Aaron Tarin.
For example, petitions being processed Tuesday had been filed 14 years ago in 2004, Tarin said.
Wait time aside, he added, many Salvadorans don’t have a family member who is a U.S. citizen.
The other option for legal residency is to apply for political asylum, Tarin said. Though it’s difficult for people from Central American countries to obtain asylum, he added, many of Utah’s immigrants may have a claim based on religion.
In El Salvador, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is regarded as a U.S. religion, he said, so people there view Mormons as having money. People who are viewed as wealthier have a higher risk of being kidnapped and extorted, Tarin said, and attorneys have seen that legal theory advance with immigration judges.
The deadline for immigrants to apply for asylum is one year from the time their protected status is revoked, Tarin noted. Interested immigrants should contact an attorney, he said.
Immigration experts are trying to gauge how aggressively the Trump administration will pursue deportation in these immigrants’ cases, he said.
“The Trump machine can only process so many deportations,” Tarin said. “The entire system charged with processing these deportations is overcapacity already.”
He added that deportation proceedings can take years.
The new announcement has once again launched families into “crisis mode,” Garza said. Tarin agreed. Inquiries from Salvadorans poured into his office Tuesday, he said, and immigrants from other dangerous countries are anxious.
“You have to ask the question of who’s next,” Tarin said.
Garza hopes Utah’s congressional leaders will help defend these people by advocating for immigration reform.
”It is time for our congressional delegation to stop ignoring this issue,” Garza said. ”Except for a few comments here an there, for the most part, they have stayed silent, and it’s time to speak up and speak on behalf of all Utah families.”
None of Utah’s congressional representatives has commented on Trump’s Monday decision, but Rep. Mia Love, whose parents are from Haiti, said in a statement last November that she disagreed with Trump’s order to end the protections for Haitian immigrants.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.