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.'"
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Last year there was a spike in migration along the Canadian border, with a nearly 20-fold increase in new refugee claims from Haitians. Caught off guard, the Canadian government was forced to set up temporary shelters and winterized trailers along the Quebec-New York border.
Rodriguez said he doesn't see as dramatic a migration surge from El Salvadorans, whose asylum claims rose last year, but still didn't crack the top 10 for nationalities.
Yet a mass deportation would have multiple effects across two continents.
That includes economic effects in the U.S., where nearly 90 per cent of native El Salvadorans are in the labour force. About one-third hold mortgages. Some 37,000 work in construction, and 22,000 work in restaurants and food services. Most have lived in the U.S. for over 20 years.
Mark Drury, the vice-president of one Washington-area construction company, told a conference call of immigration advocates Monday that he couldn't replace them with new workers because there's a desperate labour shortage in their sector.
"It's disheartening," he said. "But I'm hoping to push Congress to repair this."
'All my plans for the future just ended'
Some of the worst impacts would be in Central America, said Frank Mora, a foreign-policy analyst at Florida International University. He said 17 per cent of El Salvador's economy comes from money transfers from relatives in the U.S.
The sudden disappearance of that revenue would create more poverty, more violence, and more instability on America's doorstep, resulting in more migration, he said: "(This decision) does not make sense," Mora said. "It seems to me like a self-inflicted wound."
For his part, Chavez doesn't know what he'll do next.
He said some of his family has U.S. residency, while others don't — and he fears the family will be ripped apart, even though he works, pays taxes, learned English — everything an immigrant should do.
"I actually don't have a plan... I feel lost," he said.
"All my plans for the future just ended... Everything (has) just vanished."