CARTHAGE, Mo. — Danilo Contreras faces a choice. Seventeen years of living and working aboveboard in the U.S. haven’t erased the fear of deportation that plagued the first years after his arrival from El Salvador. Now the 39-year-old father of four must decide, by September of 2019, whether to split up his family or go back to that fear.
He is one of 320,000 immigrants, most of them Salvadorans, whose legal status has been canceled by the administration of President Donald Trump, which this month put an end to years of temporary reprieves that were granted to immigrants because of instability in their home countries.
The announcement sent shockwaves through Carthage, which is home to hundreds of Salvadoran nationals, many of whom may now be forced to return.
Contreras estimates that more than a dozen of his family members in Carthage are also under what’s called Temporary Protected Status, not including his children. He is a single father with kids 21, 18, 17, and 15 years old, three of whom are U.S. citizens.
He is a trainer and master technician at Carthage manufacturer Leggett & Platt, where he rose through the ranks over 17 years. He has a mortgage and pays taxes.
But he plans to return to El Salvador, perhaps without his children, rather than stay and live with the threat of deportation.
“I don’t want to hide anymore,” he said.
Contreras and others who hold the same legal status have always been subject to the whims of elected officials. Temporary Protected Status, known as TPS, was never meant to last forever.
Since Trump took office, one group of TPS recipients after another have been told to return to the countries they fled. Nicaraguans, Haitians and now Salvadorans — the largest group of TPS recipients, with nearly 190,000 of them — have been given a deadline for leaving the U.S. Trump-appointed officials will decide the fate of Hondurans protected by the program this spring.
The move to end TPS for these groups was perhaps no surprise coming from a president who campaigned on promises of tough policies — and sometimes tougher words — on immigration.
But Neri Ramos, a pastor with the Iglesia Cristiana Hispanoamericana in Carthage, says that for numerous Salvadorans in the area, there was no way to prepare for losing work permits and being subjected to deportation after 17 years of relative security.
“It came like the rain in May,” he said.
That is, like a nasty surprise.
TPS is a humanitarian gesture by the U.S. government, granted to citizens of 10 countries that have been destabilized by natural disaster or internal conflict.
To qualify, individuals must live in the U.S. on certain dates and have a clean criminal record. The program allows them to work legally without being subject to deportation.
Salvadorans were granted TPS in 2001 by the George W. Bush administration when an earthquake of magnitude 7.7 rocked the country, causing $1.5 billion in damage and affecting roughly one-sixth of the population. The program, which expires every 18 months, was renewed repeatedly for citizens of various countries by the Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
In canceling it, the Trump administration said that the damage caused directly by the earthquake has been repaired.
After the earthquake, the newly legal residents put down roots and got to work. The cancellation of TPS for Salvadorans, Hondurans and Haitians is projected to lead to a $45.2 billion drop in the United States’ gross domestic product over a decade, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group.
That’s because of people like Yaneth Gonzalez, 38, of Neosho, who arrived in the U.S. when she was 20 years old in search of better economic prospects.
A family business in El Salvador had fallen apart, but Gonzalez managed to start her own restaurant in Neosho, Mexican Way, which served up fare from Mexico and Cuba for a decade before she sold it last year.
Gonzalez says she could not have opened the business without TPS. It’s hard for her to conceive of the program’s cancellation.
“I still feel that it can’t be because we have contributed so much with TPS,” she said.
Gonzalez, however, won’t be directly impacted by the cancellation. The legal status afforded by the TPS program allowed her to gain residency with the sponsorship of her father, who received political asylum during El Salvador’s civil war.
But she says the decision has rattled the small Salvadoran community in Neosho. She fears for the friends and relatives who may be forced to return to their native countries. Relatives already living in El Salvador have given her reason to doubt that the country has recovered from the earthquake.
“It’s dangerous,” she said. “And the economic situation is really horrible.”
Wendy Contreras, Danilo’s 21-year-old daughter, was at work at Simmons Bank in Carthage when the news came out. Her three younger siblings, all U.S. citizens, sent her several text messages.
Contreras, who was married before the announcement, will become a legal resident through her husband before she loses the protections afforded by TPS.
Her worries focused instead on her siblings, who could lose Danilo, their single father who ran a tight ship, and who Wendy describes as “law-abiding.”
He left El Salvador in 1997, at 18 years old, with his seven siblings, his daughter, his mother and his wife.
He says he had no choice. His father, a rancher, had already set out for the U.S. after local gangsters demanded he give up part of his earnings or be killed.
When Contreras began to receive similar threats, he made plans to leave with his family.
Together they survived the two-month trip north and entered the U.S. illegally. An uncle heard there were jobs in Carthage, and they came straight from the border. Contreras got a job at Butterball, then lost it because he didn’t have a work permit.
When he received legal status through TPS in 2001, “it was a great happiness because I could work legally,” he said. “Thanks to my work and my status, I have been able to help my kids advance in the world.”
Now he plans to leave the country where he built his life for the country of his birth, which is beset by gang violence and a murder rate that is among the highest in the world. He has yet to decide whether to bring his children. The youngest will still be in high school when his legal status expires.
Contreras holds out hope that Congress will step in on behalf of TPS holders. But the immigration deal now being debated by lawmakers focuses on border security measures and protections for DACA recipients, a group of immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. The Trump administration plans to let the Obama-era program that protected them, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, expire, having asked Congress members to come up with a legislative solution.
Wendy Contreras says she doesn’t expect anyone to step in on her father’s behalf. And while some TPS holders told the Globe anonymously that they plan to stay on illegally, Danilo Contreras refuses to live illegally in the country where he raised his children.
“We’re bracing for the worst,” he said. “I’m just really scared for my father.”
The Associated Press Contributed to this report.
Jasper County was home to an estimated 350 Salvadorans in 2016, according to the U.S. Census. Nearly all lived in Carthage, which is home to more Salvadorans than any other city in the area.
An estimated 3,900 people in Missouri were born in El Salvador. Only those who were in the U.S. around the time of the 2001 earthquake in their home country are eligible for Temporary Protected Status.
Most Salvadorans live in a handful of major metropolitan areas, notably Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.