Salvadorans at risk of losing immigration status find support in churches

CASA de Maryland, an immigration advocacy and assistance organization, holds a rally in Lafayette Park, across from the White House in Washington, on Jan. 8, 2018, in reaction to the announcement regarding Temporary Protected Status for people from El Salvador. The Trump administration is ending special protections for Salvadoran immigrants, forcing nearly 200,000 to leave the U.S. by September 2019 or face deportation. El Salvador is the fourth country whose citizens have lost Temporary Protected Status under President Trump, and they have been, by far, the largest beneficiaries of the program, which provides humanitarian relief for foreigners whose countries are hit with natural disasters or other strife. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Caption amended by RNS)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — When German Fernandez learned last week that the Trump administration plans to end Temporary Protected Status for him and around 200,000 other immigrants from El Salvador, it was a nightmare come true.

“When I saw the news, I could express no words,” he said. “TPS has protected me for 18 years.”

When the program allowing undocumented Salvadoran immigrants to live and work in the United States ends next year, many will be at risk of deportation to a country that is racked by horrific gang violence.

But rather than succumb to despair, many Salvadorans — who are overwhelmingly Christian — are finding hope, support and empowerment in churches that are working with advocacy groups and faith-based coalitions to offer assistance.

Fernandez, who has been sending money he makes in the U.S. back to his family in El Salvador, has found support at St. Matthew’s Parish, an Episcopal church in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Md., where about 40 percent of the congregation’s roughly 800 members are Salvadoran TPS holders.

“My faith is important to me, because I am feeling alone,” said Fernandez, who said the support he and his fellow parishioners are getting from the church “is very important.”

He said he’s talked to many friends about the TPS announcement, “and they cried because they knew the reality of what’s going on now.” He and other church members are planning to fly across the country in a few days for a major protest in Sacramento, Calif.

The Rev. Vidal Rivas, the head priest of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish in Hyattsville, Md. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Greater Washington contains one of the largest concentrations of Salvadorans in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. And there is a lot of outrage at St. Matthew’s.

“On Sunday I will preach to the community that this is a sad reality — it’s a disgrace on the part of the U.S. government. It’s absurd, dehumanizing, unconscionable, un-Christian,” the Rev. Vidal Rivas, who is also Salvadoran, told RNS last week.

Rivas spoke in Spanish while standing next to a statue of Oscar Romero — the revered Salvadoran martyr now in line for sainthood in the Catholic Church — that adorns the front of his sanctuary.

Trump, Rivas added, “has to understand that laws are not made to abuse the poor, rather to favor the poor. But in fact he is favoring the wealthy, which is an insult to God’s people.”

Ana Langerak, the church’s associate priest, said the congregation has been preparing for the potential end of TPS status for months, with some worshippers tearfully asking for prayers during Sunday services. She said the church worked with local advocacy groups to host seminars with immigration and family lawyers, where parishioners asked hard questions such as what to do if parents are suddenly torn away from their children by the federal government.

Immigration activism has also become a regular part of St. Matthew’s, such as when leaders brought congregants to participate in a protest vigil in Washington last October. But church leaders are helping Fernandez and others speak directly to power: In December, St. Matthew’s partnered with a local Mennonite church to hold meetings with the staff of Maryland’s two Democratic senators, Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin Cardin. The pair co-authored legislation in November that would allow many TPS holders to apply for legal permanent residency, and Langerak said Senate staffers asked the group how it could reach Republican Episcopalians or Mennonites to drum up support for the bill.

The Rev. Ana Langerak, associate priest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish in Hyattsville, Md. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

“We try to channel (our anxiety), right?” Langerak said. “We have voices, and we are a community of faith. We have spiritual strength.”

Other churches are also struggling to care for those impacted by the decision. Maria Swearingen, co-pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Washington, said her community is still reeling.

“Our stewardship chair person is a TPS holder from El Salvador. The very functioning of our church is impacted by this decision,” Swearingen said in an email. “Our beloved community is gathering to offer support and pray and make plans in light of the new information this week. We’re doubling down on our support and advocacy and pastoral care.”

Swearingen said her congregation is also a member of a “sanctuary” network. Network members, usually worship communities of all faiths, collaborate to provide legal and advocacy assistance for immigrants. Some even pledge to offer physical “sanctuary” for those at risk of deportation, a rare step that relies on the federal government’s internal policy of avoiding raids at “sensitive locations” such as churches.

These kinds of networks exist all over the country and predate Trump’s election, but advocates say their numbers have swelled since he took office, and Swearingen speaks of a spiritual urgency in responding to the administration’s immigration policies.

“Scripture is filled with stories of leaders and rulers whose greed, narcissism, and thirst for violence and chaos left them plummeting from flimsy thrones housed inside castles built on sand,” she said. “Donald Trump is not immune to God’s acts of justice and mercy in the world.”

Salvadoran immigrants Diana Paredes, left, and Isabel Barrera react at a news conference Jan. 8, 2018, in Los Angeles after an announcement on Temporary Protected Status for nationals of El Salvador. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes; caption amended by RNS)

Salvadorans were granted TPS status in response to a pair of earthquakes that hit El Salvador in 2001, and their permits have been renewed on an 18-month basis ever since. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen said in a statement last week that “the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current T.P.S. designation must be terminated.”

Noel Andersen, national grass-roots coordinator for Church World Service, said major faith groups set up a meeting with Nielsen three days before the TPS announcement regarding Salvadorans (the administration had already ended TPS status for some 59,000 Haitians weeks earlier). Representatives from CWS, Sisters of Mercy, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, American University and others made the case for keeping TPS in place, arguing that sending TPS holders back to El Salvador is dangerous for several reasons — especially given the country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Andersen said DHS officials did not appear to be swayed, countering by saying that El Salvador has the capacity to handle the influx of migrants. Still, he believes the fight isn’t over and progress is still possible.

“I do think it was a new door opening with the faith community,” he said.

Other faith groups are speaking out as well. The chair of the USCCB Committee on Migration issued a statement calling the decision “heartbreaking”; the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, described it as “just another move to target immigrants and disregard human rights”; the Council on American-Islamic Relations declared it “heartless”; and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism decried it as “the latest in a shameful and dangerous pattern of America turning its back on those in need.”

Meanwhile, Fernandez and his religious allies plan to keep fighting. For him, the chance to stay doesn’t just mean avoiding violence and poverty in a faraway land. It’s also about the chance to earn a living without being deported or forced to live in the shadows.

“We would like a chance to survive the right way, like Christians, like humans,” he said.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.


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  • So now we are looking at 200,000 illegal aliens because our government wanted to treat a group of people like crap for being Latino. There is no excuse for this action. Its pure malice for its own sake.

    BTW before I get the usual partisan bullcrap, I am mad at the last two presidents as well for not granting these people asylum/refugee status when they came here. TPS was some kind of half baked sop, presumably because bigoted conservatives would be up in arms about granting them a more permanent status. We can’t get any kind of immigration reform going as long as hysterical wingnuts are controlling the pace of action here.

  • Boot all illegals. There is plenty of happiness to be found back where they belong. And if it’s Jesus they want to worship, he’s there waiting for them too, albeit a top a cloud.

  • They aren’t illegal aliens, unless we choose to make them ones.

    They are here legally right now and documented. But with a half baked status because people weren’t willing to just grant them asylum in a proper manner. People like you, making ignorant responses here are part of the problem.

  • It is sad,but, where do we draw the line?? Will we continue to just sweep policies under the rug?? Unfortunately the fear is not only going back to El Salvador,but, losing their dollar paying jobs to send money home . If the policy is not amended it must be addressed.

  • What policies are you talking about? Half the time when people discuss immigration issues they have no actual knowledge of the facts or laws in place.

    We have an ongoing policy of accepting people and granting them permanent residence if they have a well founded fear of immediate harm if they are returned to their nation. That is written right into the Immigration and Naturalization Act when referring to asylum seekers. This TPS status was a break from the normal operating procedures.

    “Unfortunately the fear is not only going back to El Salvador,but, losing their dollar paying jobs to send money home .”

    How is that not a legitimate fear as well? BTW these are not illegal alien menial laborers. These are people who are working here legally under the protection of the government.

    The fear of going back is generally enough to grant permanent residence as an asylum seeker. Under saner circumstances these people would be granted that status post-haste. Asylum status even provides an exception to those who entered here illegally and would be subject to deportation.

    The only reason they were not considered asylum seekers was the complaints of nativist bigots seeking an exception to the policies we already have.

    Under our laws, they have a right to stay here. But also under our laws, they would probably need some kind of legal representation to file for their status as asylum seekers. More likely than not most won’t. They will wrongly be lumped in as illegal aliens and be deported to their deaths.

  • i, would say 18 years goes well beyond temporary protective status. and what do we call those who runaway from, fighting for or rebuilding their country?

    can i trust those who do not fight for or rebuild, their country of origin? tps is not, an immigration naturalization program.

    and is amazing how many, cannot understand or comprehend what the word ‘temporary means’.

  • why, haven’t they gone through the legal immigration program? if they, really wanted to become american. i, believe there is an ulterior motive for not doing so.

    i, would want immigrants coming here that want to become american.

    and i seriously doubt, their suspicious claim they believe in G-D or jesus. since G-D, would protect a true believer no matter where they go or are.

    we, need to straighten out our immigration difficulties first. before we, can determine if we need any immigration reform.

    handing out more free-bees, is not an amnesty option. since it only, invites more illegal immigrants and those who only overstay their welcome.

    as failure to enforce immigration laws won’t fix, anything. nor does kicking the can down the road for temporary status fix anything either.

  • Spoken like a true ignoramus.

    Had the government followed the usual legal immigration program, these people would be declared asylum seekers and be permanent resident aliens. But instead they took a half-baked route and gave them this temporary protection status. One cannot obtain asylum status without government approval.

    “i, would want immigrants coming here that want to become american.”

    Obviously you don’t. Because these people want to become American, should have been declared as such but were denied the ability to seek asylum here.

    “we, need to straighten out our immigration difficulties first. before we, can determine if we need any immigration reform.”

    Bullcrap. Immigration reform won’t go one step as long as ignorant panicky types are controlling the discussion. People who have no idea how the system operates but feel the pressing need to give their opinion on the subject vociferously, ruin any chance of reasonable discussion.

    “handing out more free-bees, is not an amnesty option. since it only, invites more illegal immigrants and those who only overstay their welcome.”

    First of all, THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT ILLEGAL ALIENS. Not unless the government feels the need to declare them such in a pique of malice.

    Second of all, people should not talk of opposing amnesty unless they can show the laws in question are just and proportional in punishment to the offense. If you don’t like amnesties, then make immigration law violations less draconian. This way you have a just punishment instead of an irrational and extreme one.

    Third of all, there is nothing we do which “invites more illegal aliens”. They come here because of the economy and demand for menial labor. When the economy turns down, they leave in large numbers. Its a continuum. There is nothing we can do here which can make conditions here comparable to the places they are fleeing.

    Your whole spiel demonstrates the flat out ignorance and malicious dishonesty inherent to conservative attitudes towards immigration.

  • “what do we call those who runaway from, fighting for or rebuilding their country?”

    Asylum seekers. We give them permanent legal residence.

  • maybe the Catholic church should spend some of its vast resources to help improve the country so TPS is not needed. The US is not the savior of the world.

  • What a horrible way to live, only knowing your status is secure for 18 months at a time.
    No legislation should ever play with individuals’ lives this way.
    Democrat and Republican administrations should both be raked over the coals for failing these immigrants and the American people.