WASHINGTON — Cristian Chavez Guevara gathered his entire family recently to discuss with his wife, mother, and brother what they should do if they suddenly faced the prospect of being deported from the United States, where they have lived legally for two decades.
The El Salvador-born, Texas-dwelling IT worker says they specifically discussed one possibility: Moving to Canada. After doing some research, they discarded the idea — it was legally complex, required a return to El Salvador and would uproot them from their home in Houston.
“I love this country. My kids were born here (in the U.S.). They go to school here. They have friends,” he said. “We don’t want to leave. We want to continue our lives.”
Their concerns became real Monday as the Trump administration ended a major immigration program for El Salvadorans, leaving nearly 200,000 people in legal limbo and a trail of potential ripple effects up and down the hemisphere.
The administration announced an 18-month grace period — giving people like Chavez just over a year to either leave the U.S., apply for a different immigration status or stand their ground and hope Congress passes a law allowing them to stay.
Monday’s move did not catch the Canadian government by surprise.
El Salvadorans are the No. 1 user of a U.S. program granting temporary legal status to people from crisis-hit countries, with four times more users than Haitians — who flocked to the northern border by the thousands last year when their similar program was cancelled.
By declaring that El Salvador no longer meets the criteria for the program, the U.S. government has cast its people into the same cauldron of uncertainty as 50,000 Haitians, and the 800,000 undocumented youngsters whose program the Trump administration also cancelled.
The administration explained in a statement that the El Salvador program was created to deal with earthquakes — 17 years ago: “The original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated.”
To counter the potential onslaught, the Canadian government is embarking on an online ad campaign aimed providing the same information Chavez discovered: Immigration isn’t easy or automatic, Canada also has laws, and people are taking a huge gamble if they uproot their lives to try crossing the border.
Canadian MPs who speak Spanish and Creole have also been fanning across the U.S. to deliver that message.
Liberal Pablo Rodriguez has travelled to Chavez’s home town of Houston, as well as Dallas, Los Angeles and New York to correct a pair of urban legends: that Canada allows automatic entry, and that it has a system for people who have lost U.S. protected status.
“There was a lot of misinformation out there,” he said, citing some erroneous reporting in foreign-language media.
“My message is: ‘Before leaving your job, withdrawing your kids from school, do the research…. We have a robust, structured immigration system.’”