Shock, sadness, resolution and hope all mix inside Lorena Zepeda.
She is disillusioned after the US Government announced on Monday, Jan. 8, what she and nearly 200,000 other Salvadorans were dreading: an end to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program after 17 years, a program that gave them a reprieve from deportation and a work permit.
“I feel sad even though it was something we had expected because of what happened with Hondurans and Haitians” — some had received a six-month extension while others had their programs cancelled — “respectively,” said Zepeda, 50. “We feel blessed because we at least received more time to fight for an immigration reform.”
Affected Salvadorans will get another 18 months to stay in the country; their TPS will expire in September 2019. They received the TPS benefit after two powerful earthquakes a month apart in January and February of 2001 caused enormous damage across the small country.
“I feel hopeful” that something will allow them to stay in the country that has become her’s, Zepeda said.
She’s lived in Los Angeles for 26 years, a time during which she has not set foot in her country. She has no plans to return, partly because of the rampant violence in El Salvador.
In 2015 there were 6,650 homicides in the Central American country where gangs rule many “colonias” (neighborhoods), impose their will. Homicide rates declined in 2016 in El Salvador, but they remain among the highest in the world.
In a survey conducted last year by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières in Mexico, 55 percent of Salvadoran refugees and migrants reported being victims of blackmail or extortion, 56 percent had a relative who died due to violence, and 67 percent said they never felt safe at home.
Zepeda is adamant she doesn’t want to expose her two US born children, 14-year-old Benjamin and 12-year-old Lizeth, to this. They have never visited her native land.
“If it was just me, I would do it, but I can’t do it [because of] them,” Zepeda said.
So she’s fighting. She and other TPS holders will visit Washington, D.C. next month to try to meet with Congressmen and plead with them for a solution.
“We’re confident in God that He will open bridges and hearts,” she said.
It’s the same hope shared by Veronica Lagunas of Sylmar, another Salvadoran, who has lived in the country for 17 years and has two children: 13-year-old Alexandre and 8-year-old Lydia Angie.
“I thought I was prepared to receive the news, but when I heard it, it was such an ugly emotion that I had a lump in my throat and we all started to cry,” said Lagunas, 39, who works as a janitor.
“I felt such desperation. All I wanted to do was go home and be with my kids. This is such an impact for them,” she said.
Her son does ask her what’s going to happen. “He’s very sad. He asks me if they’re going to come get me and deport me,” she added.
And the boy feels conflicted. He attends a military academy and wants to be a Marine when he grows up.
“But he says, ‘if I want to serve my country, how can I do right by the United States when the country doesn’t want my mother,’” Lagunas said. “I know it affects him.”
Like Zepeda, Lagunas does not plan to return to El Salvador.
“If I go back, there’s not going to be any work for me over there,” she said, adding that she can’t expose her children to the violence sweeping her country.
While she fights for a bill that gives TPS holders permanent legalization, she’s also planning for the future.
She’s saving money, and if September 2019 arrives and there’s no solution, “the first thing I would do is hide, change my address. But the government has my fingerprints and it would be difficult for me to get a job,” she said.
Moving to another state is not an option.
“How can I move to another state when California is a ‘sanctuary state.’ We won’t have the same type of protection,” Lagunas said.
She has thought about moving to Canada because it would be easier for her children. But she remains focused on staying here.
“The United States is my children’s country and they have the right to remain here,” Lagunas said.
For now, she’s not hiding. And Lagunas encourages other TPS holders to be visible as well.
“I know we’re scared. To separate us from our children would be the worst that could happen. But we have to be brave and tell our stories. If people don’t know how we feel, they’re going to think that we’re fine,” she said.
“(TPS holders) will be to blame if they don’t fight, if they don’t do something.”