"It's pretty much signing a death warrant going back to El Salvador"
Maria Angulo never thought it would happen to her.
Born 28 years ago in war-torn El Salvador, she followed her parents legally into the United States when she was in fourth grade. She has since enjoyed a life nowhere near what some call “the shadows” of immigration,
Angulo graduated from Kansas State University with a political science degree and plans to be a lawyer. All the while she and her family have kept their immigration papers updated under a provision known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.
Long and short: Angulo is documented. Paying taxes. Her home is Kansas City.
It seemed all good until Jan. 8. That’s when the Trump administration announced the revocation of Temporary Protected Status, effective September 2019, for 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants who have not attained permanent U.S. residency.
For them the question is how they might find legal protection.
“I guarantee that marriages are going up in the coming months, at least in the Hispanic community,” said Angulo, who is a judicial administrative assistant to a Jackson County circuit judge.
And yet, marrying a U.S. citizen (which Angulo has no immediate plans of doing) does not automatically provide safe haven to TPS immigrants. They have to convince officials that the relationship hasn’t been cooked up out of convenience.
As with all aspects of immigration law, nothing is simple. So there’s business everywhere for immigration attorneys.
Many liken the search for protective pockets in the law to a game of musical chairs: Find safety in this loophole while you can, then, when forced to, take cover under other legal shelters.
“Sadly, yes, we’re getting a lot of inquiries,” said Valerie Sprout of the McCrummen Immigration Law Group in North Kansas City.
“What’s been different this past year is that we’re seeing squeaky-clean clients who haven’t had a speeding ticket. They do their taxes on time and are suddenly feeling a whole lot of anxiety,” Sprout said.
In most cases, she said, they’ve been dutifully renewing their TPS documents — and paying nearly $500 in filing fees — every 18 months.
That process may not be enough to protect Salvadorans from deportation after Sept. 9 of next year — President Donald Trump’s deadline for them to leave the U.S. or find a way to obtain a green card.
This group of immigrants left El Salvador during or before 2001. Catastrophic earthquakes that year made much of the country uninhabitable.
A decade or more before the earthquakes, tens of thousands of Salvadorans had arrived in the United States — mostly with visas, experts contend. They fled civil warfare in the 1980s, when El Salvador’s brutal military regime received extensive U.S. support. Those immigrants were granted TPS permits, as were survivors of the 2001 quakes.
One Kansas City group is trying to smooth the path for immigrants needing legal guidance.
Bob Grove, a local software developer, is spearheading the Deportation Defense Legal Network. For now it’s a loosely assembled band of lawyers hoping to organize support for pro-bono representation in immigration courts and financial aid for immigrants needing to bond out of detention.
A training session in November drew about 20 attorneys. They are working with The Clinic, a West End-area legal service co-founded by the Sharma-Crawford firm that provides discounted rates for qualifying immigrants.
“We’re trying to gear up for the future sweeps (of immigrants facing deportation) that we’re anticipating,” said Grove.
Immigration lawyers in the Kansas City area cite a number of legal avenues available to law-abiding Salvadorans, though no option guarantees protected status.
“It feels a little like ‘Schindler’s List,’” said lawyer Jessica Piedra, referring to the Steven Spielberg classic depicting a businessman’s efforts to protect his Jewish workers in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“How many people can we shove through the legal system before deportation comes?” she asked.
Some of the options:
▪ U.S.-citizen children or siblings of immigrants can apply for permanent resident status on their relatives’ behalf, so long as the applicants have reached the age of 21.
▪ Some local attorneys are advising Salvadorans to take a trip abroad just to have their passports stamped on their U.S. return.
“Visit grandma back home ... if only for a few minutes,” said lawyer Michael Sharma-Crawford.
The fresh passport stamp would be proof of Uncle Sam re-admitting immigrants into the country, providing extra legal cushion for immigrant families to pursue green cards.
▪ Wait it out.
If 200,000 Salvadorans nationwide begin lining up for deportation hearings beginning September 2019, “it will clog up the courts something ridiculous,” said attorney Sprout.
These cases are administrative, not criminal, meaning that indigent immigrants aren’t provided public defenders. But they can request a continuance to seek an attorney. That option already has allowed some area lawyers to schedule hearings for 2021 or beyond.
▪ Seek asylum.
Another hard sell. Immigration judges must be shown evidence that asylum seekers would face government persecution in their home country because of race, religion, nationality, political opinions or their membership in a social group.
Native Salvadoran Angulo said extortion and perhaps death await her family if they’re forced to return to Central America.
She, a brother and their mother came to California in 1998, shortly after their father arrived on a tourist visa. Father secured a work permit and ever since, the family has pursued an American lifestyle under TPS: high school, college, careers, homes.
“It’s not that we’re hiding or anything,” Angulo said.
In El Salvador, however, her family might hide. Criminal gangs likely would root them out and require payment for protection, she says. One uncle who returned, Jose Hernandez, found work with the wrong people and turned up murdered four months later.
“I was 100 percent convinced in my heart that this (possible deportation) wasn’t going to happen to me, simply because of the horrible conditions in El Salvador,” Angulo said.
She might have attained U.S. citizenship either by marrying a citizen or by finding an employer willing to commit to several years of sponsoring her stay — a pricey proposition that Jackson County courts don’t offer.
“I could’ve married just anyone, but I want to honestly abide by the laws of this country,” she said. “I want my marriage to be Catholic and real.”
Her parents, who still live in California, tell her to stay positive and keep achieving.
And yet, “there’s this huge ‘What if?’... I’m trying to stay focused on my future here,” she said. “But there’s this cloud over you. Now we have a clock clicking, we have a timer, and it’s set for 18 months.”
She emigrated 30 years ago, when U.S.-involved warfare in her home country erased opportunity. Today all in her family are U.S. citizens, including a son who helps at the diner.
On a napkin Rodas sketched how the legal system adjusts for Salvadorans who haven’t attained citizenship. She draws a little square — one pocket of protection for a certain group of immigrants — then draws an arrow to another little square.
Then more arrows to more squares providing temporary legal shelter.
“Like musical chairs,” Rodas said.
“Most Salvadorans came here with visas,” she said. “And they aren’t asking for benefits. They just want to live, work and be happy with their families...
“At least for another year.”