Will it affect my brothers?”
That was the first thing the 23-year-old Salvadoran woman asked me about the Trump administration’s announcement last Monday that it would not renew “temporary protected status” for nearly 200,000 immigrants from her country.
Her three brothers live here — two crossed by themselves in 2013 along with a wave of other unaccompanied minors, and the third is undocumented. They arrived after 2001, so none of them were ever eligible for the protection the White House is taking away. But their lives here — and the lives they fled in El Salvador — illustrate how disastrous it will be for their country to attempt to absorb 200,000 people who are required to return in September 2019.
The young woman, whom I met when I wrote a book about her family and whom I called Maricela there, lives in rural El Salvador and gets her news via Facebook on a phone that only sometimes works — when it doesn’t rain, and when she has the money to pay for data. It took only a day for her to learn about the policy shift, and to become terrified.
She knows that being deported can be a death sentence. She explained that when young Salvadorans are sent home, they risk being killed by gang members, often the very people who ran them out of the country. Some returnees who have been away for a long time will be considered “desconocido,” unknown, and are likely to be targets because of suspicion (they could be members of a rival gang) or because, by virtue of having lived in the United States, they are assumed to have money. “My parents are so worried,” the woman told me.
Her fear is no doubt being felt by many whose relatives’ status has been thrown into question by the announcement, and whose loved ones face dismal fates if they’re made to return. While the decision to end temporary protected status is causing shock waves in the United States as Salvadorans here reckon with the prospect of being separated from their families and sent back to a country plagued by deadly violence, or moving into the underground undocumented economy, it is also a source of intense anxiety for millions in El Salvador about how it will affect their own lives.
Opportunities for young people in El Salvador are scant; only half of Salvadoran youth attend junior high school, and only half of those complete high school. More than 300,000 young Salvadorans are out of school and without a job. Nayib Bukele, the mayor of San Salvador and a 2019 presidential candidate, says that this makes young people all the more prone to join a gang, be a victim of a gang or, to avoid both, flee the country.
“We can’t go back,” was a refrain that I heard again and again during the three years I spent reporting on unaccompanied minors from El Salvador and that I still hear from the dozens of Salvadorans I work with at a high school in Oakland, Calif. One 15-year-old student has had repeated panic attacks; she shakes uncontrollably and gasps for breath at the prospect of returning. “The gangs tried to recruit me into their group,” Jorge, who arrived here two years ago, told me this week. When he didn’t join, they threatened his life. “They’d kill me if I went back,” he said.
Salvadorans like the young woman in my book are also fearing the impact of so many people being sent home so suddenly. El Salvador is home to 6.34 million people; the 200,000 deportees from the United States would mean a population increase of 3 percent. Where are these 200,000 people expected to go, and how will they possibly be absorbed? They won’t, Mr. Bukele says — or at least not without severely harming the economy and civil society.
Millions of Salvadorans rely on remittances from the United States; last year some $4.5 billion was sent home. The loss of that money will make the G.D.P. plunge. “Our country doesn’t create opportunities for the Salvadorans who live here,” Mr. Bukele told The Los Angeles Times. “Imagine what we’re going to do with 200,000 more coming in.”
The last time the United States mass-deported people to El Salvador was in the 1990s, when the country’s long civil war ended. Salvadorans who had come of age in low-income, violence-riddled communities in the United States took that violence back to El Salvador in the form of gangs modeled after American gangs.
The violence in El Salvador today is a direct result of both American foreign policy during the Salvadoran civil war and the immigration policy immediately following. In vowing to send nearly 200,000 people back to a country plagued by violence, we seem destined to repeat the same mistakes, with consequences perhaps even more dire than before.
It’s a phenomenon that Mr. Trump’s reported remarks about immigration policy — asking why the United States would want “all these people from shithole countries” — overlooks entirely.
As a result of the administration’s decision, many Salvadorans who lose their temporary protected status will no doubt flee into the shadows in this country. And those forced back home, once they experience how dire the situation is there — and how much their mass arrival has wreaked havoc — will almost certainly risk their lives to return to the United States.
Lauren Markham is the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life.