Salvadorans in Berkshires among 200,000 who might lose protected status
In El Salvador, Isabel Orellana worked day and night. But it wasn't enough.
Her four children — then ranging in age from 7 to 13 — often went without basic necessities.
After she asked questions about her brother's death, she felt she was being watched.
And so she fled El Salvador in 2000, first moving to California, then to the Berkshires in 2002, where she has lived ever since, working two jobs to make ends meet.
All of her children eventually joined her. They still live in Pittsfield.
Orellana is one of about 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants who received temporary protected status to live and work in the United States in the wake of two devastating 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador.
The federal government will revoke that status Sept. 9, 2019. Until then, recipients must leave or seek lawful residency.
Over 6,000 Salvadorans in Massachusetts have this status, known as TPS. Besides Salvadorans, Haitians and Nicaraguans with the same status will lose their protections in 2019. Hondurans, the second-largest group in the TPS program, could lose their rights later this year.
Advocates for immigrants are working to help, but options are limited.
"I suspected that this was going to happen," said Brooke Mead, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. "It's just unconscionable, I think."
President Donald Trump's attempt to end the Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals program last September indicated that the administration would go to great lengths to remove immigrants, regardless of their contributions to the country, she said.
DACA has shielded undocumented young adults who came to the United States as children.
Salvadorans represent a significant group in Berkshire County, Mead said. In some years, her center sees about 60 people from El Salvador.
In Berkshire County, some Salvadoran recipients of TPS are seeking a path to legal status amid uncertain options.
Michele Sisselman, a Pittsfield immigration attorney, fielded more than a dozen calls this past week from local Salvadorans seeking advice on how to legalize their status.
"They're afraid," she said. "They're going to lose everything that they've invested in ... they're going to lose it after September 2019."
Sisselman said she has worked with clients involved with the TPS program for 17 years.
"They are all a big part of Berkshire County," she said. "And have been for a very long time. They've bought homes here, they have jobs here, some have created jobs for others here, they have family here ... and now, suddenly, they're losing their status."
Orellana's mother and some cousins remain in El Salvador. When she talks to relatives, Orellana hears news of recent killings in the country. El Salvador suffers from high levels of violent crime, including murder, rape and assault. Gang activity is widespread, and the State Department advises people against travel to the country.
Even minding one's own business doesn't protect from violence, Orellana said.
"You can't even have business, because they will come and take everything away and then kill you," she said.
Some police are associated with groups that commit violence, she said, and don't protect anyone.
Orellana knows that without TPS, her existence in the United States is in jeopardy.
Lawful permanent residency isn't an option — since no one could sponsor her.
"What else can I do?" she asked. "For me, this is my country."
Leaving would mean selling the two homes she has bought over the years.
She has been taking classes for her GED at the Pittsfield Adult Learning Center, hoping to become a teacher. She also works at a grocery store and at Jiminy Peak.
There are limited ways to obtain lawful permanent resident status, commonly through petitions based on marriage or employment. In most cases, the person seeking a green card must have someone else file on their behalf.
But family members might be in the same situation, or otherwise too young to apply. Children cannot seek permanent resident status for their parents until they turn 21, Sisselman said.
And employment-based applications have their own troubles.
"They take a really long time," said Raymond Jacoub, a Pittsfield attorney. "And the criteria are really strict. If you're a regular blue-collar worker, you're not going to meet their criteria."
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' website lists three eligibility preferences for employment-based green card applications — first, second and third.
First preference is given to "outstanding" professors or researchers, certain multinational managers and executives, and those with "extraordinary ability" in the sciences, arts, athletics, education or business.
Third preference covers skilled workers, professionals and unskilled workers. Unskilled work is defined as labor requiring less than two years' training or experience.
It does not apply to people performing temporary or seasonal work. A long backlog exists for visas for unskilled workers.
Jacoub said he believes most Salvadoran immigrants in Berkshire County are not working in skilled jobs.
Sisselman said she's optimistic that employers locally will try to help their employees get legal status.
"I find Berkshire County to be very loyal to its people," she said. But that might not be across the board.
"I knew these families when they got married, when they had children, when they bought a house, when they started a business," she said. "They're just a vital part of our community. And now what are we going to do? What's going to happen to these wonderful people?"
Sisselman said she's waiting until the official announcement rescinding TPS for Salvadorans is published in the Federal Register before recommending specific actions.
Legislation is only the means for most TPS recipients to gain legal status, said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
"TPS ... is a merry-go-round," Mead said. "It's not a permanent solution."
The ASPIRE-TPS Act, introduced in Congress in late 2017 by U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., would enable eligible immigrants with TPS to receive lawful permanent resident status if they establish that removal would cause extreme hardship.
The bill has 14 co-sponsors, including U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.
Locally, the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield plans to set up an informational workshop on TPS, said Sheryl Lechner, development coordinator for the center.
A date has not yet been set.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.