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A 14-year-old prepares for life without her immigrant parents

|     Jennifer Miller, The Washington Post     |

IT WAS January 8, 2018, and 14-year-old Emily stood in the bathroom at DuVal High School in Prince George’s County, Md, waiting for a friend.

A soft-spoken freshman, Emily often felt overwhelmed in DuVal’s crush of rowdy students. But she was eager to make the best of second semester. She looked forward to competing on her school’s CyberPatriot team, to watching the latest Marvel Studios releases with her mum, and to drinking outrageously flavoured smoothies with her friends as they wandered the shops at Bowie Town Center.

Now, Emily glanced down to see a news alert on her phone: The Trump administration was cancelling temporary protected status for El Salvador, a government programme that had allowed Emily’s parents, both Salvadoran natives, to live and work legally in the United States for the past 17 years. According to the news, on September 9, 2019, her mother, Maria Rivas, and her father, Jose, would be ordered to leave the country.

As she took this in, Emily’s heart began to pound. She couldn’t breathe; she could barely stand. By the time her friend arrived, she was sobbing uncontrollably. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” she told me a few months later. “We’d been so secluded from this. We’d always thought we’ll be OK.”

But now she realised that her parents had only been feigning optimism about the future since Donald Trump was elected President. “They can’t hide it anymore,” she remembered thinking. “They can’t say nothing is going to happen.”

Emily’s friend tried to console her, but all too soon, the bell rang. Lunch was over and Emily had Algebra 1. She pulled herself together and went to class.

Maria and Emily with Lynette Craig. Maria used to work as a nanny for Craig’s children and now the families are close friendsMaria says she and Jose would bring Ethan with them back to El Salvador when their status expiresEmily and her mother in the kitchen of the Craigs’ homeMaria Rivas (C), Ethan and Emily with the Craig family: Lynette Craig and husband Ryan with sons, Hudson, eight, and Harvey, 10. The Craigs would become Emily’s legal guardians if her parents return to El Salvador. – PHOTOS: WP-BLOOMEthan and Emily shop for school supplies with their mum

This is not a scene anyone could have imagined in 1990 when Congress created temporary protected status, or TPS, a category of humanitarian relief for foreigners residing in the United States who could not return to their native countries because of environmental disasters, armed conflict or “other extraordinary temporary conditions”.

Most people from TPS-designated countries who had a generally clean record were eligible, even if, like Emily’s parents, they’d originally come here as undocumented immigrants. (The Washington Post agreed to withhold Emily’s last name, since she shares it with two non-American siblings whose immigration cases are currently in legal proceedings. We also agreed to refer to Maria Rivas by her given first name, though most people call her by middle name.)

As of October 2017, there were roughly 300,000 TPS beneficiaries from 10 countries living in the United States. These individuals came from a handful of Central American and African countries, along with Haiti, Syria, Yemen and Nepal. But by far the largest group were Salvadorans – close to 200,000 – who were granted TPS by George W Bush in 2001, following two massive earthquakes that ravaged their country.

Salvadorans were given 18 months to live and work legally in the United States, after which the US government would assess the viability of their returning home.

But 18 months later, the Bush administration determined El Salvador had not adequately recovered from the disaster, so it extended TPS again, this time for 12 months.

The following year, the administration extended TPS for another 18 months. When Barack Obama became President in 2009, his administration extended TPS again. And then again. By January 8, 2018, TPS for Salvadorans had been extended a total of 11 times. Trump issued a 12th extension, saying it would be the last.

Over nearly two decades, Salvadoran TPS recipients settled into American life. They found employment, fell in love and married. Many of them bought homes and started businesses. They also gave birth to roughly 192,700 American-born children, some 38,000 of whom live in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

“While nothing in the (TPS) statute suggests a pathway to permanent status, a lot of links and dependencies were created,” said law professor and founding Director of American University’s Immigrant Justice Clinic Jayesh Rathod. “It’s only reasonable to assume that alongside the statutory factors, (previous administrations were) looking at the practical reality and how uprooting that community wouldn’t be feasible, not just to El Salvador, but to American children.”

In cancelling TPS for Haitians, Hondurans, Nepalis, Sudanese, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, the Trump administration forced families like Emily’s to confront the question that past administrations had avoided: What would happen to all these American kids when their parents were officially ordered to leave the country?

The Department of Homeland Security had an answer. “We will coordinate with the Government of El Salvador to better understand what documents might be needed by US citizen children to enrol in local schools, access local health services, or other social services,” a DHS spokeswoman wrote to me in June.

In other words, the government expected nearly 193,000 American kids to leave the United States along with their parents. Simple as that.

Except it wasn’t. From the start, parents balked at the idea of uprooting their children from stable communities and removing them to a country plagued with poverty, corruption and gang violence.

Come next September, many, perhaps most, will decide to take their chances by becoming undocumented and staying with their kids in the United States.

But others, like Emily’s parents, may begin to see separation as a viable option – heading back to their country of origin while leaving their American-citizen children behind.

On a Sunday afternoon in late March, Emily’s home was busy. Six people lived in the modest split-level house in Glenarden, Md, which the family bought in 2011. There was Emily and her seven-year-old brother, Ethan; their parents, Maria and Jose; and two older siblings, Tita, 21, and Jose Jr, 19, who were born in El Salvador and had only recently come to the United States.

Ethan, though only three-foot-11 and 54 pounds, was the main source of chaos. Dressed in a cobra sweatshirt, Spider-Man sneakers, and ninja sweatpants, he rocketed around the house, enacting imaginary scuffles, barely watching the cartoons blaring on the family-room TV.

Neighbours dropped by with their kids as Emily talked about some of her favourite bands – Panic! at the Disco, Cage the Elephant – and how she loved musicals like Hamilton, West Side Story and Wicked. “There’s so much emotion in the songs,” she said, and spoke wistfully about her middle school chorus, where she’d sung soprano. It was all that Maria and Jose could have dreamt for their children: typical suburban life. Yet the current situation was anything but typical.

After the neighbours had gone and Ethan was momentarily absorbed in his Legos, Emily and her parents sat at their kitchen table talking about the future.

Maria explained that if she and Jose were ordered out of the country, they would leave Emily here, in the care of an American family for whom Maria used to nanny.

“El Salvador is not a place for her,” said Jose quietly. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. I looked at Emily and caught a couple of tears dripping from her chin onto the red-and-white chequered tablecloth.

Maria glanced at Ethan in the other room. She seemed determined to take him with them. “He’s too young,” she said. “He’d be too much of a burden” to leave here. It would be too dangerous to send him to school in El Salvador, but Maria believed she could homeschool him.

“I’ll make sure he learns,” she said and beckoned Ethan over. Suddenly shy, he crept to his mother’s side and nuzzled against her. “I try not to worry him too much,” Maria said, hugging him.

“Do you remember that we had a conversation about if we need to go back to our country, you’ll come with us?” she asked Ethan.

“I can manage to come back here,” Ethan said. “Or someone can pick me up.” He ran back into the family room.

“I want her just to worry as a teenager, not about taking care of us,” Maria said, taking Emily’s hand. “But she’s our only hope. She has to be strong.”

“My citizenship is what I have in my power,” Emily said.

In 2023, when Emily turns 21, she could petition for her parents to obtain permanent status in the United States. But to have even a shot, they would have to prove they’d been compliant with American law. And that would mean leaving the country when ordered to do so.

Still, as often as Maria and Jose repeated these intentions – to follow the law and leave the country voluntarily with Ethan in tow – they seemed paralysed when it came to planning.

There were so many questions: First among them, where would they go? To escape the gangs, Maria’s mother had fled to Nicaragua and Jose’s parents had moved into a gated community in San Salvador.

But Maria, who cleans houses, and Jose, who installs and maintains cellular towers, covered the rent for both households. Without these American jobs, Emily’s grandparents would lose their homes, which meant her parents and Ethan would have nowhere to live in El Salvador.

It was all too overwhelming for them and even unimaginable. How could they be sitting in the suburban home they owned one day and then just up and leave it the next? Emily, however, was preparing for the worst. “My parents are going back to a terrible place, and I don’t want them to die,” she said, not quite looking at her parents across the table.

This sounded like hyperbole. But was it? If El Salvador wasn’t safe for her, she reasoned, how could it be for the others? In fact, just two days after the administration cancelled TPS, the State Department updated its travel advisory for El Salvador, warning that “violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common; gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread; (and) local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”

Of course, the family didn’t need a travel warning to tell them how dire the situation was. Emily’s two older siblings, Tita and Jose Jr – who were born in El Salvador and had stayed behind with family when Maria and Jose came to America – were granted permission to leave El Salvador in 2015 under the Central American Minors parole programme, an Obama-era initiative designed to protect kids from violence. Roughly 1,500 minors were granted temporary and renewable permission to enter the country.

Then in August 2017, about five months before Trump cancelled TPS for El Salvador, he cancelled CAM parole. Tita and Jose Jr would now be sent back unless they could make a case for asylum.

Over the past year, Emily watched with increasing alarm as her older siblings gathered details for their case. She learnt that to escape the gangs, Jose Jr had moved out of San Salvador to a small town where there was no school.

He eventually returned to the city to continue his education. But life there was akin to house arrest. Both he and Tita left home only for school and to retrieve basic necessities from the store.

Even so, they’d been held up multiple times on city buses. If they lingered for any amount of time on their front steps or in their yard, gangs might harass them or shake them down. On one occasion, the police had asked Jose Jr why he was walking on the street – a warning that he understood as a threat.

On another occasion, Emily’s siblings told her that a family friend in the neighbourhood, a young man around Tita’s age, had recently been murdered by gangs.

Of all these stories, it was the break-in that haunted Emily the most.

In the middle of the night, shortly before Tita and Jose Jr were to leave for the United States, their grandfather spotted an intruder in the yard. When the police came, they beat the intruder up. He was, they told the family, a wanted gang member.

The family watched, horrified. “It’s established that there’s always retribution on people who call the police on gangs,” Maria told me. They not only declined to make a formal report about the incident, but quickly made plans to move into a gated community – the one for which Maria and Jose were paying. “They just left the house,” Maria said. “They left most of their stuff behind.”

Emily couldn’t wrap her head around any of this. She certainly couldn’t fathom her siblings, let alone her parents or little brother, living in such a world. She could barely fathom the world itself. “I don’t know how to connect to that,” she told me. “I don’t know what to say to my brother and sister. I just want them to realise they’re here now. They don’t have to worry about being unsafe going to the bus stop or to school.”

In light of this, Emily’s own concerns felt almost trivial: moving in with another family, transferring schools, being separated from her friends, whether she’d still have health insurance. She tried to put on a brave face. “I can take care of myself,” she would tell her parents.

But panic attacks, like the one on January 8, continued. She also began experiencing debilitating migraines, which forced her to retreat to the nurse’s office or miss school altogether. (Emily eventually received a scholarship to a smaller, private school for the fall.) – WP-BLOOM