Two options, one future: 18-year-old must decide to leave her U.S. home or move to foreign land

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While many high school students are applying to colleges or concerned about grades, Rebecca is worrying about something else.

“When I’m at school, I’m terrified to go home, or when I get a phone call, I answer right away,” said Rebecca, 18, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. 

Rebecca’s parents are among an estimated 230,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. – thousands of whom are in Minnesota – whose Temporary Protected Status (TPS) will expire in 2019.

The Trump administration announced in January that protections for immigrants from El Salvador will terminate in September 2019, throwing Rebecca’s life into uncertainty as her family is forced to choose their next steps from a list of life-changing options.

“What if one day they do have to leave?” she said. “We have to have a plan for what we are going to do next.”

The Secretary of Homeland Security may grant Temporary Protective Status to a foreign country “due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country's nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

TPS was given to El Salvador after two earthquakes ravaged the country in 2001. However, according to the Department of Homeland Security, living conditions in El Salvador have since improved.

“Schools and hospitals damaged by the earthquakes have been reconstructed and repaired, homes have been rebuilt, and money has been provided for water and sanitation and to repair earthquake damaged roads and other infrastructure,” the department said in a January statement. “The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exist.”

Rebecca’s mother came to the U.S. at the age of 17 to support her two children, who lived in El Salvador with their grandmother, Rebecca said. With only a first-grade education, it was a struggle to get enough money to get by.

“At age 17, she had three jobs working day and night to send money to El Salvador to build a house,” said Rebecca, who was born a U.S. citizen.

After years of hard work, Rebecca’s mother started her own business and had her own employees. This was all thanks to TPS, which allowed her to stay and work legally in the U.S., according to Rebecca.

“TPS is a temporary protective status and a humanitarian-based protection that exists for people from countries who are experiencing political turmoil and humanitarian or national disaster,” said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul.

TPS meant a lot to Rebecca’s parents because it helped them build a life in the U.S.

“That’s how they got a house and a car, and they worked legally here,” Rebecca said.

Keller says families like Rebecca's have two options: a U visa or a green card, neither of which apply to Rebecca’s situation. To obtain green cards, Rebecca would need to be 21 years old in order to sponsor her parents. The U visa is for victims of violent crimes.

Rebecca’s family has thought of another, far riskier option: moving to Canada. Her family believes it is the best option to allow them to start a new life.

“My parents’ plan is to flee to Canada and take her[1] siblings along with them, in which I will either stay and finish my education or go with them,” Rebecca said.

Keller says families like Rebecca’s won’t find the generous, open arms they expect in Canada.

“People think there is hope that they will be generous,” he said. “We have to educate people that Canada doesn't just have an open-door policy for people who lived in the United States for a long time. Unless you have a visa, they will turn you back.”

Facing these terrifying decisions, Rebecca now has to make a decision most 18-year-olds never have to consider: stay in the U.S. alone or go with her parents back to El Salvador[2] .

“I don’t know how I will go through my life,” she said. “I don’t know where I will work or where I’m going to stay, and I can’t depend on my family forever.”

It’s a decision Rebecca says she shouldn’t be forced to make. It makes her anxious. She should be concentrating on school and not thinking about such huge decisions, she said[3] .

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “It’s hard.”

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