A recurring nightmare shakes Gilma Ramirez from her slumber in the predawn hours. She awakens with her heart palpitating, tears welling up.
She finds comfort, though, in the darkness that envelops her small New Jersey bedroom. Her 8-year-old son sleeps soundly in the next room, in a bed she bought him with part of a tax refund from her cashier’s job.
“In the dream, I’m forced to return to El Salvador and cannot come back,” Ramirez, 42, says of the troubled Central American country she fled nearly two decades ago. “Then I open my eyes and feel so relieved.”
That nightmare came closer to reality this week when the Trump administration announced the end of “temporary protected status” for more than 250,000 Salvadorans like Ramirez. They have been allowed to live and work legally in the United States since at least 2001. Now they have less than two years to leave, find a way to legally remain in the country or face deportation.
“I would be starting my life from zero,” Ramirez says. “My whole life is here. My home. My son. His future.”
Panic, distrust and fear
Trump’s latest reversal on longstanding immigration policy has sent shock waves through communities like this one in northern New Jersey. Activists say the state is home to nearly 7,000 Salvadorans with TPS.
Immigration advocates believe about 200,000 Salvadorans nationwide will be affected by the decision. While the latest government figures show some 263,000 Salvadorans had TPS at the end of 2016, advocates say that number likely includes those whose immigration status has changed or who’ve left the country. In addition, they say nearly 200,000 US citizen children of Salvadoran parents with TPS will be affected.
About 15,000 Salvadorans have settled in Hudson County, which lies across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Along Bergenline Avenue, one of its main commercial strips, Salvadoran bakeries and restaurants have opened alongside businesses owned by immigrants who arrived before them.
El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people about the size of New Jersey, has long had a role in US immigration. A civil war from 1980 to 1992 drove out more than a quarter of its population. More than 330,000 Salvadorans migrated to the United States between 1985 and 1990, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
At the offices of Centro Comunitario CEUS, a nonprofit in Union City, Ana Salgado and other workers have been taking calls and sitting down with Salvadoran TPS recipients worried about the future.
“There is distrust and fear,” Salgado says. “Lives will be upended. People don’t know what to do.”
On Sunday, hundreds are expected to attend an informational meeting sponsored by the center, which was founded by Salvadoran refugees in the early 1990s.
“People are in a panic,” says Robin Bernstein, an immigration attorney for the nonprofit.
“So many people have established lives. They have US citizen children. They have been paying into the tax system. They own homes. They have businesses. It’s pretty traumatic and dramatic.”
Praised by immigration hard-liners and criticized by advocates, the administration’s decision has plunged thousands of immigrants like Ramirez into uncertainty.
“We made lives here and now we’re living in limbo,” she says. “We’re trying to be hopeful that this will be worked out. Something tells me it’s going to be OK.”
A bill introduced in Congress last year would give people with TPS an opportunity to apply to become permanent US residents.
But US officials say conditions in El Salvador have improved enough since a series of devastating earthquakes in 2001 for migrants to return.
‘Everything I do is for my son’
A 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck El Salvador in January that year, killing more than 1,100 people and displacing another 1.3 million. In her 20s, Ramirez embarked on the perilous journey north – to the Mexican border city of Matamoros – after two powerful quakes shook her impoverished country the next month.
“Leaving home was my only option,” she says. “My country was destroyed.”
The devastation back home spurred the US government to allow Salvadoran immigrants in the United States since February 2001 to apply for temporary protected status. They were shielded from deportation and granted work permits.
For nearly 17 years, various administrations extended the protections after determining that conditions in El Salvador hadn’t improved enough. Until Monday, when Washington announced the end of TPS for Salvadorans effective September 9, 2019.
Survival in the United States was never easy for Ramirez, but the birth of her son, Jose Zamora, eight years ago began to change that. She is separated from the boy’s father, a native of Venezuela, and has been raising Jose largely on her own.
“My life changed after he was born,” she says. “They say children are a blessing. I got my own apartment. I got my car. He gave me something to fight for. Everything I do is for my son.”
No work, no future
The single mother lives in a small two-bedroom apartment in a redbrick building on a quiet, tree-lined street in Jersey City. With the money she earns as a cashier at a Walmart in Secaucus and her yearly tax refund, Ramirez said, she has furnished the apartment.
“Every year, I purchased something that we needed,” she said. “Last year, I got a used car and I’m financing it.”
Ramirez said she cherishes her life in America and cannot imagine starting from scratch in El Salvador. She has family there, including her 76-year-old mother. She sends money to her mom each month; remittances like those make up more than 17% of the country’s GDP.
“There is not work there for me,” she said. “There is no way to start over. … Some people may be preparing to leave, but returning is not an option for me.”
Poverty and violence have fueled migration from El Salvador, where the murder rate is one of the highest in the world. Ramirez said a relative on her mother’s side of the family was killed during a robbery about two years ago.
“There is no future for my son there,” she said. “I lived through the war in El Salvador. My parents sheltered me. They wouldn’t let me go out. It’s different here. We can walk the streets without fear. You don’t fear being kidnapped.”
Many advocates doubt that Salvadorans will be willing to return, choosing instead a life in the shadows.
“They’re not ready to go back in any way,” said Bernstein, the immigration attorney. “What’s there for them is a state that is out of control, run by gangs and with an incredible amount of violence. And there’s a high likelihood that they’ll be targeted even more for the extortion from gangs should they come back. Looking like Americans and dressing differently, it’s inevitable that people can tell when people have been out of the country for that long.”
Ramirez said she hasn’t spoken with Jose about the possibility of her deportation.
“I don’t think he will understand, but I will have to tell him,” she said. “He gets easily depressed.”
On her day off this week, Ramirez left her tidy apartment to pick up her son at school. She stepped over piles of snow on street corners and walked about a block to Nicolaus Copernicus School, a public school where most of the 800 students are the children of immigrants. Under an American flag fluttering in the January chill, she tiptoed to see over the shoulders of other parents, trying to spot Jose.
“He has friends from all over the world – Chinese, white, black, Indian,” she said. “I am proud that my son was born here. It would be so hard to leave all this behind.”
On Tuesday night, after Jose played with his video games, Ramirez had him shower before getting him ready for bed. She hopes her recurring nightmare never becomes reality.