Many of the workers who clean the Trump administration's offices and bathrooms are scrambling to figure out a path forward after government officials rolled back one of the country’s largest humanitarian immigration programs.
Helen Avalos, who cleans hospital rooms at Walter Reed National Medical Center, broke down in tears on Monday after the Trump administration announced that —after July 2019— about 260,000 Salvadoran immigrants with Temporary Protected Status would no longer be able to live and work legally in the United States.
"It shattered my world," Avalos said in Spanish over the phone shortly after the announcement. She has two American children and obtained TPS in 2002. "All the nurses started asking me what was wrong; I don't think people realize who is affected by this."
Avalos said that she and 45 other janitors at Walter Reed have TPS. They will probably lose their jobs because they will no longer have valid work permits after the program ends. Avalos applied for US citizenship through her American husband nearly a year ago, but isn't confident she will get it.
Avalos and her co-workers are far from alone. About 9,000 janitors and maintenance workers from El Salvador — many of whom have Temporary Protected Status — have been sweeping, scrubbing, and vacuuming government buildings in the nation's capital for decades. I interviewed several of them after they heard the news. They have cleaned places like the US Department of Justice, the US Department of Agriculture, Ronald Reagan National Airport, and Walter Reed National Medical Center, where members of Congress and presidents are treated. These workers all face major uncertainty in light of the policy change.
The nation's capital is home to the second-largest Salvadoran community in the US — about 165,000 people. Salvadoran TPS workers living in the Washington, DC, area told Vox they have no idea what they will do when their legal status expires in 18 months. They've been cleaning federal buildings here for more than 15 years, and have bought homes, started families, and opened 401(k) retirement accounts. What will happen to their American children is one of the hardest questions to consider.
But these immigrants did seem certain about one thing: They will not go back to El Salvador. No one they know will either. The Central American nation is the deadliest in the world, with an average of 15 homicides a day in September 2017. "I'm not going back there; gangs are killing everyone," said Avalos. She said two of her brothers were murdered there — one as recently as 2015.
Refusing to return to El Salvador leaves these TPS workers with few options. They can move into the shadows, becoming undocumented in the US; apply for asylum in Canada or in another country; or see if they are eligible for another US immigration program. They have just 18 months to figure it out.
Trump doesn't want poor immigrants in the United States
The decision to rescind the temporary legal status of Salvadoran immigrants fits neatly with President Trump's "America First" worldview. Trump has vowed to revamp the US immigration system to focus more on merit, in which high-skilled immigrants are given preference over unskilled workers or those fleeing instability and violence abroad.
The TPS program, which allows immigrants to live in the US after a natural disaster strikes or war breaks out back home, falls into the second category, as Vox's Dara Lind explains:
Not only does it extend legal protections to people based almost entirely on what’s happened in their home countries, rather than what they can contribute as individuals, but it applies to people who were already living in the US when TPS was granted — instead of allowing the US to select immigrants in advance. But the fundamental problem, from the Trump administration’s point of view, is that TPS is designed to be temporary, and a temporary program shouldn’t be leading people to settle in the US.
Trump has already revoked TPS for Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan and will have the chance to do the same for the other six countries in the program over the next two years. Congress initially gave TPS protection to immigrants from El Salvador in 1990, in the midst of the country's brutal civil war, but that expired two years later. In 2001, after a series of earthquakes struck El Salvador, the US government allowed Salvadorans in the US to apply again. Since then, the protection has been renewed 10 times.
In those 17 years, Salvadoran immigrants have established deep roots in the United States, said Jaime Contreras, the head of 32BJ, a labor union that represents 18,000 janitors, maintenance workers, and security officers in the DC area, part of the Service Employees International Union. About half of the union's members are from El Salvador.
"When you have someone here for 20 years, of course they are going to start a family, start a business, and buy a house," said Contreras, a Salvadoran immigrant and US Navy veteran who arrived in the United States in 1988 and has since become a US citizen.
Contreras, who has been lobbying Congress on behalf of TPS workers, called Trump’s decision "inhumane," "immoral," and "un-American."
He points out that about 192,700 American citizens have at least one parent from El Salvador with TPS protection. What happens to those Americans is one of the biggest challenges Salvadoran immigrants are now grappling with.
"They are treating us like their toy"
Berta Miranda had been taking her 8-year-old American daughter to weekly meetings at the Salvadoran Consulate in DC. They've been anxious for information about what could happen to Miranda's temporary legal protection. Miranda said she repeatedly told her daughter that Trump wouldn't revoke TPS, that they wouldn't have to leave.
"What can I tell her now? It would be a lie," said Miranda, a 42-year-old single mother who makes $18 an hour cleaning offices at City Hall in DC. "All I can tell her is that maybe Congress will do something."
Miranda started sobbing on the phone as she talked to me, describing how the news has crushed her daughter's dream of becoming a schoolteacher. "If I lose TPS, I will lose my job and my apartment," said Miranda, who has lived in the nation's capital for 22 years and previously cleaned offices at the IRS and Georgetown University.
She said she can't fathom the possibility of returning to the violence of El Salvador with her daughter, where she used to sell fruit on the street. She also can't imagine becoming undocumented here. Instead, she is counting on members of Congress to pass a bill that will give TPS holders permanent legal status.
"They punted us like a ball from one to another; they are treating us like their toy," she said.
Her frustration is common.
Sonia, who works as a janitor at Reagan National Airport and asked to be identified by an alias out of fear of retaliation from her employer, said she and her co-workers were furious when they heard the news on Monday.
"I came to escape from the gangs; now he wants to send us back?" she said during a break at work. "[Gang members] were trying to recruit my son, and they kill people who refuse to join."
Sonia works with 15 other Salvadoran immigrants who have TPS. None of them know what to do, she said, but they will definitely not return to El Salvador.
"I just pray to God to soften the hearts of the [politicians] here," she said.
Congress may be the last hope — and that’s a long shot
Some TPS workers have resorted to prayer, but Miranda and others are actively lobbying members of Congress to pass a bill that would grant them legal status.
Contreras said he and other labor leaders have met with Democratic members of Congress, such as Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York, urging them to draft a bill that would grant them legal status.
In October, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Republican from Florida, introduced the ESPERER Act, which would grant green cards to certain TPS holders who arrived in the United States before 2011. The bill has eight Democratic co-sponsors and four Republican ones.
In November, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, introduced the American Promise Act, which would grant a path to citizenship to immigrants with TPS protection. The bill has 65 co-sponsors, but none are Republican.
It’s hard to see this path as hopeful. Republicans in Congress can't even agree on a solution for DREAMers on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Their temporary legal status will start to expire in March, after Trump ended the program last year. DACA recipients are a far more organized and influential group than TPS immigrants — a sign that Salvadorans with temporary status shouldn't expect an easier path.
The press officers for House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to questions from Vox about whether the GOP is considering permanent protections for TPS holders in its immigration negotiations.