Biology senior Marco Medina and his family have been paying close attention to the TV, shushing each other and turning the volume up whenever they hear three words: Temporary Protected Status.
For months, Medina said they’ve watched in horror as President Donald Trump’s administration ended protections for Haiti, Sudan and Nicaragua, wondering if their home country, El Salvador, would be next.
On Jan. 8, after living in the U.S. for almost two decades, their worst fears came true. Medina is now one of 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants with TPS in the United States — including 36,300 in Texas — who have until Sept. 9, 2019, to either obtain legal residency or face deportation.
“Right now we’re all really worried,” Medina said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen to us.”
Medina was only three when two devastating earthquakes struck El Salvador in 2001. His family fled to Houston that year and received word that the U.S. government had designated El Salvador for TPS.
The designation suspends deportation to countries destabilized by ongoing armed conflicts, environmental disasters or other temporary conditions.
Immediately, Medina’s family applied for TPS. Medina’s girlfriend, government senior Olga Vargas, was also displaced by the earthquakes and said her family also applied.
Now, Vargas’ oldest brother, still a TPS holder, faces the same dilemma as the Medinas: become a resident or leave.
“My brother has built a life here,” said Vargas, who is now a legal resident. “He has a stable job, a home, a mortgage. He pays taxes, he contributes to the economy and he’s an upstanding citizen. Losing all of that would be devastating.”
A study conducted by the Center for American Progress found that Salvadoran TPS holders are an integral part of Texas’ economy. According to the study, $1.8 billion would be lost annually from the state GDP without Salvadoran workers who hold TPS.
The protections were terminated because the Department of Homeland Security had determined the country has recovered from the earthquakes.
“Many reconstruction projects have now been completed,” a DHS news release said. “The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exist.”
However, immigrant advocates argue that the country’s high crime rates make it unsafe for returning Salvadorans.
The State Department has issued a level three travel advisory for El Salvador, urging Americans to reconsider travel due to violent crime and widespread gang activity. The country is also listed as one of UT’s restricted regions for traveling abroad.
“If we’re recommending people not to travel to El Salvador, but we want to send 200,000 people back there, it’s a little incongruous,” said Nicole Svajlenka, CAP senior policy analyst.
Medina has dreams of attending a graduate program for cardiovascular science. However, come Sept. 9, 2019, Medina said those goals will become “impossible” to obtain.
“I’m going to have to live in shadows either way,” Medina said. “I’ll try to avoid immigration here, and I’ll try to avoid gangs over there.”
The decision also affects Medina and Vargas’ relationship, which began during their junior year of high school.
“It’s tough because while we know we want to get married someday, we are now thinking about the possibility of marrying sooner than expected in order for (Medina) to fix his legal status in the U.S,” Vargas said.
Despite the uncertainty, Vargas said Salvadorans are not ones to give up easily. This summer she will advocate for Salvadoran TPS holders in Washington, D.C.
“We will prepare for the worst,” Vargas said. “But we will also be proactive and demand from our Congressmen a better solution than simply kicking us out of a country we contribute a lot to and have lived in for generations.”