Women, girls, and LGBTI people especially endangered by Trump move to end protections for Salvadoran immigrants
The Trump administration’s decision to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people from El Salvador has thrown the lives of 200,000 people who have made the U.S. their home — some for over a decade — into turmoil. It was made despite the fact that the Salvadoran government asked the U.S. to extend the TPS designation because the country will be unable to absorb the hundreds of thousands of returning nationals, even by September 2019, when the status will end.
Close to 90 percent of Salvadorans with TPS are employed, and all have been through multiple background checks. Individuals and families with the TPS designation have been able to reside in the U.S. without fear of deportation. That ended in early January.
“The sad reality of El Salvador is that there are no job opportunities for anyone, and children who were [born here] are not going to have a future there,” said R.M., a Salvadoran woman living in rural central Texas. “It saddens me that the [U.S.] government does not mind taking [this] opportunity from people who really [are] doing something [positive] for this country.”
According to TPS Holders Are Integral Members of the U.S. Economy and Society, a report by the Center for American Progress, they are “long-term, integrated members of communities across the United States.” The report also found that if Salvadoran TPS holders — along with Hondurans and Haitians —were no longer in the workforce, the U.S. would lose $164 billion in gross domestic product over the next decade. And remittances from Salvadoran workers with TPS in the U.S. totaled $4 billion in 2015. However, the Trump administration is proposing to reduce foreign aid to Latin America and the Caribbean to “levels not seen since 2001.”
Returning could also be extremely dangerous, particularly for women, girls, and LGBTI people. “In El Salvador, a culture of rape is strongly instilled,” said S., a women’s rights activist based in El Salvador. “This culture of rape works in the acceptance of violations as an everyday occurrence, which does not disrupt the social order, rather it is even established as a male prerogative.”
“El Salvador has some of the highest levels of sexual and gender-based violence in the world that is perpetrated by gangs and security forces,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, senior associate for Mexico, border and migration issues of the Latin America Working Group, a U.S.-based human rights organization. “Women, girls, and members of the LGBTI community returning from the U.S. will be direct targets for this violence and will have no access to justice for any violations they experience. The stigma that deported migrants face is even worse for women and girls. Upon return, most have a hard time getting a job. And the LGBTI community members who left El Salvador were probably fleeing because of violence against them in the first place, so to return to it would be a death sentence.”
According to LGBTI Salvadorans: Winning Legal Advances But Facing Unchecked Violence, a report by the Latin America Working Group, although the Salvadoran legislature passed a hate-crime law in September 2016, becoming one of the few Latin American countries with laws to protect LGBTI citizens, the laws are often ignored or violated. Security forces are the most frequently reported source of physical and verbal abuse. Many transgender people have reported rape, extortion, kidnapping, and torture by the police.
“We have a travel advisory for U.S. citizens warning against going to El Salvador because it’s too dangerous,” said Royce Bernstein Murray, policy director of the American Immigration Council. “I can't imagine many people choosing to go back to El Salvador. For women TPS holders who have been working here legally, [if they stay] they will have to choose to work illegally, which makes them more vulnerable to sexual harassment and receiving low wages.”
Women with American-born children are now faced with stark options. “Mothers who are TPS beneficiaries are asking, Do I remain in the U.S. and live in the shadows with my family, do I leave my kids behind, or do I return to a violent and dangerous country and bring my children back with me, exposing them to that?” said Burgi-Palomino. “No one should have to ask that or be forced to choose between those options. In El Salvador, women and girls have no access to protection for their well-being on any front. The government has not addressed their sexual and reproductive health needs, or their safety and access to justice from violence.”
Abortion is illegal in El Salvador with no exceptions for rape or incest; women and abortion providers have received lengthy prison sentences, sometimes of up to 40 years. Some women have been convicted after having a miscarriage or stillbirth, which was assumed to be an abortion.
“Women risked their lives to escape El Salvador to come to the U.S.,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, an international human rights lawyer and director of Latin American Initiatives at the Women's Equality Center, which advocates for reproductive rights in the U.S. and Latin America. “It is hard to go back to a situation that you were fleeing. Women and girls are still being raped. And girls under age 18 are often forced into the gangs by being raped. Girls who become pregnant are pushed out of school, even if it is a result of rape. We've heard reports of girls as young as 12 being raped by gang members and forced to carry their pregnancy to term. The government doesn't believe that women and girls are important, and they aren't seen as valuable, so the message that men and boys get is, I can beat her, I can rape her.”
The effects of the rescission have begun even though it won’t go into effect for another 18 months. “We're already seeing it contribute to fear within immigrant communities,” said Glenaan O’Neil, director of the Lone Star Victims Advocacy Project, which advocates, educates, and provides free legal services to empower immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in rural Texas. “Salvadorans with TPS have ‘done everything right.’ They've followed the law, obtained immigration status, paid taxes, and done everything required of them, and they are still losing their status. Many of our clients are looking at this and worrying that no matter what assurances we may give them now, they may ultimately lose immigration status in future ... and ultimately, it is leading some of our clients to return to abusive situations.
“The fear of deportation has increased a huge amount within the past year and can govern every decision our clients make. Do they go see the doctor when they're sick? Do they take their kids to after-school activities? Each of those activities require driving — and for immigrants without status, driving means risking being pulled over, potentially jailed, and possibly deported. This fear also plays a large part in more momentous decisions such as the decision to report abuse, sexual assault, or serious exploitation. Ultimately, it creates a culture of avoiding authority that is very easy for predators to exploit.”
The announcement of the rescission came the same week as President Trump’s disparaging remarks about Haitians and people from African countries. Since the 2016 election, immigrants have been contending with increased fears of being forced to return to countries that many have no connection to, that may pose dangers for them, and that hold few prospects. The decision doesn’t benefit the U.S. in the long-term either. “The termination of TPS will destabilize a region that the U.S. has an interest in stabilizing, and could eventually lead to more displacement and out-migration,” said Burgi-Palomino. “Restricting immigration isn't part of American values and is not what most people in the U.S. want.”
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