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world

Salvadorans look for Plan B after immigration program

In the wake of Trump's announcement that a longstanding protection would end, people who have called the country home for years struggle to find a way to stay

Santos Reyes, left, and his partner Trevor Carter in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 18, 2018. The couple just moved from Texas so Reyes can avoid possible deportation to El Salvador.

As a child whose family fled El Salvador for the United States, Santos Reyes had nightmares that immigration authorities were coming to take his mother. Now, his fiancé has nightmares that authorities will come for him.

Mr. Reyes, 42, has had his life thrown into disarray by news last week that the Trump administration was ending a longstanding program, known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), that has shielded immigrants from El Salvador from deportation after devastating earthquakes struck the country in 2001.

The move has generated confusion and anger among the nearly 200,000 Salvadorans covered by the program, many of whom have been in the country for decades and are now scrambling to qualify for other U.S. immigration programs or risk deportation after TPS ends in September, 2019.

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"All of a sudden for political reasons, one person decides the circumstances in your country have changed," said Mr. Reyes, whose family moved to Texas from El Salvador when he was six. "But after 20 years, I don't know that your home country is your home country any more."

Mr. Reyes's life has been thrown into disarray by news that the Trump administration is ending the longstanding Temporary Protected Status program. Max Whittaker/The Globe and Mail

The announcement has also sparked a renewed push by the Canadian government to avoid a repeat of last summer, when thousands of migrants fled to the Quebec border to claim asylum in Canada as the United States was preparing to end TPS for Haitians next year.

Over the past several months, the government has tapped Liberal MPs to visit immigrant communities in Miami, Los Angeles and New York, contacted Spanish-language media outlets in the United States and paid search engine companies to direct people looking for information on immigrating to Canada to official government websites.

The message Canadian government officials are spreading stands in stark contrast with the one offered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year when he tweeted #WelcomeToCanada.

Canada is an open country that welcomes immigrants, but people have to follow the rules, Quebec MP Pablo Rodriguez told a meeting of immigration non-profit groups in San Bernardino, Calif., earlier this week during his fourth outreach visit to the United States since September. For many of those covered by TPS, the chances of claiming asylum in Canada are likely slim and the consequences of a failed refugee claim can be dire, including deportation back to their home countries.

"It's not necessarily what people want to hear all the time and it's not necessarily easy for me to come here as a Latin American and say: 'Hey, this is the reality,'" Mr. Rodriguez said in an interview.

Mr. Rodriguez and other Canadian officials have emphasized that Canada is a signatory to international treaties governing asylum claims. Canada won't deny legitimate claims, but immigration officers weigh factors such as whether someone has a failed or abandoned a claim in the United States in their decision to grant refugee status in Canada.

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Immigration advocates in Los Angeles largely agree with Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen's assertion last week that Canada isn't expecting another influx of asylum-seekers since most Salvadorans are looking to stay in the United States. Most say that they have seen few Salvadoran TPS-holders expressing serious interest in trying to go to Canada, although those affected still have 18 months to decide what to do before TPS ends.

However, rumours that Canada is opening its doors to asylum-seekers based in the United States are widespread within the Spanish-speaking immigrant communities. "They say they want to go [to Canada] because of the President," said Kevin Mendez, a legal assistant at the Association of Salvadorans in Los Angeles. "They're saying that, but I don't know if it's going to be true or not."

In Texas, Mr. Reyes heard that Canada was welcoming asylum claims by TPS recipients, although he isn't considering such a move himself.

Lawyers have told him his fiancé, Trevor Carter, a U.S. citizen, can likely petition to sponsor him for permanent residency in the United States once they're married, which they hope to be by the end of the month. But since Mr. Reyes came to the United States illegally as a child, he would have to go back to El Salvador to wait months or even years for his application to be processed.

His chances are better in U.S. states such as California, which are covered by a Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals judgment last year that TPS-holders should be eligible to remain in the country while they await the sponsorship applications.

The judgment doesn't apply in Texas. So last weekend, Mr. Reyes packed his belongings and bid an emotional goodbye to his mother. The couple arrived on Tuesday in Sacramento, where they're searching for jobs and an apartment, supported by $1,300 they have raised so far on a GoFundMe campaign.

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"Our goal right now is basically to start over. We feel like we've had to leave our lives behind," Mr. Reyes said. "My family had to flee from El Salvador. Now it's like we're having to flee from Texas."

Joana Rivas, a temporary protected status recipient and masters student studying social work at California State University, Northridge, in Los Angeles.

For those without immediate relatives to sponsor them like Mr. Reyes, the future is even less certain.

"We've been here for so many years. We all work and go to school. We're productive members of society," said Joana Rivas, 28, who came from El Salvador to Los Angeles as a child. "It's disheartening to be told you can no longer be here, because this is home now."

Ms. Rivas and her parents are TPS recipients, while a younger sister is covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, another program Mr. Trump has promised to end in March unless Congress can craft new legislation.

Losing her status would likely disqualify Ms. Rivas from some school internships and also means her father, a general contractor, won't be able to renew his trade licence. The family is planning to consult experts to see if they are eligible for other U.S. immigration programs. But beyond that, they are struggling to come up with a Plan B.

"I really don't want to leave, but we do need to plan just in case," she said. "Everything is so crazy right now."

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