(AFP) San Isidro, El Salvador: Uncertainty and fear are rising in Central American countries over how many families will manage to get by when remittances from the US are cut off under plans by the Trump administration to make tens of thousands of Salvadorans and Nicaraguans leave.
“I hope the American dream doesn’t end, that it goes on,” said Salvadoran Milagro Bonilla, a resident of the town of San Isidro, where most of the 11,000 inhabitants have risen out of poverty thanks to money sent from relatives in the United States.
The anxiety felt here has surged since January 8, when President Donald Trump’s government said it was ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived for years in America. They risk being deported if they don’t leave by September 9, 2019 or find some alternative way to stay.
Bonilla, 60, works as a cleaning woman but relies on the money sent by her son Carlos to pay for costs associated with caring for her 86-year-old mother and a handicapped sister.
“I hope they at least allow him to stay a little longer, because 18 months passes so quickly,” she said.
Carlos, 34, emigrated to the United States through a risky overland voyage organized by a “coyote,” or people smuggler, in November 2000.
He subsequently became included in the TPS program extended by then-president George W. Bush following devastating earthquakes that hit El Salvador, becoming one of thousands of compatriots who had irregularly entered the United States and were allowed to stay there and work.
“Without his (Carlos’) help, I could never get by here, because what I alone earn isn’t enough,” said Bonilla.
In San Isidro, residents who mainly work in subsistence agriculture warn that their country is woefully unprepared to absorb thousands of Salvadorans deported from the United States.
“Those who might come because TPS is over are going to find it tough, because here there’s no source of employment, and because they’ll go from earning $12 or $15 an hour to $5 for a day’s farm labor,” cautioned Daysi Moreno from the door of her small grocery store. She has three brothers living in the US.
More than 60 percent of San Isidro emigrated to America, fleeing poverty. Today, around 90 percent of the town’s inhabitants receive money from their relatives in the US, far more than the 21 percent who do so nationally, according to Ernesto Romero, a 55-year-old economist who runs a mini-bank dealing with remittances.
The signs of the inflow of money can be seen in the construction of the houses, made of concrete and no longer clay, and the satellite receivers adorning the roofs.
Remittances account for a staggering 16 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product. Last year, more than $5 billion was received from relatives abroad.
El Salvador is not the only Central American country that faces an abrupt change because of changes to the US TPS program. Nicaraguans have also been told to leave, and Honduras is expecting a similar decision.
For Rosa Chavez, a 65-year-old housewife in Nicaragua’s capital Managua, the situation is worrying. She depends on the money sent from her two US-resident sons.
“What worries me most is that that man (Trump) is taking drastic measures that are affecting remittances, because the only ones harmed are the ones living here,” she said. “But who is going to correct that man? That man is very tough.”
The end of TPS will impact 5,349 Nicaraguans, according to the US Department for Homeland Security. They have until January 5, 2019 to leave, secure a different migration status, or be removed.
Around 57,000 Hondurans are looking at the same fate. In November the TPS for them was extended for six months, but there is little hope it will be renewed again.
Honduras last year received $4 billion in remittances, a 13 percent increase over the previous year, according to official figures.
American migration policies are already dividing Central American families.
Lazaro Villalobos was deported back to Honduras, leaving behind in the US his two sons, aged 14 and 16, and his Mexican wife. Now he works as a motorbike taxi rider in his birth town of Aramecina, south of the capital Tegucigalpa.
“I haven’t been able to see my two sons since June 2016, when they deported me,” Lazaro, 37, said.
He explained that he had lived for 19 years in North Carolina state, where he had bought a house and a car workshop which his wife was forced to sell to raise the money for him to remake his life in Honduras.