A few minutes before going to work deep beneath Washington’s streets, the Salvadoran construction workers checked off the projects they had built for the city’s residents: storm water tunnels, new Metro lines and train stations, and people-movers at Dulles International Airport.
Now these workers are at risk of losing their jobs and being removed from the United States. They are among 400,000 immigrants from six nations whose legal immigration status, based on violence or environmental disaster in their native lands, was revoked last year by the Trump administration, which argues that conditions there have improved enough for them to return.
The administration’s decision will cause economic ripples in other cities, but few will feel it more directly than Washington. Roughly a fifth of the capital’s construction workers are in the United States because of the program, known as temporary protected status.
Already facing labor shortages, contractors warn that projects will face delays and that costs could rise if the workers are sent home or end up staying illegally. Most are from El Salvador, with smaller numbers from Honduras and Nicaragua.
“If we lose them, it’s not going to be easy to replace them,” said Rick DiGeronimo, a vice president at Independence Excavating, a construction firm based in Cleveland that has several projects in the Washington area. About one-third of its workers have temporary protected status. “We’d struggle to finish some of our jobs because there aren’t workers of this quality out there,” he said.
Construction appealed to new arrivals from El Salvador because the jobs did not require special skills or knowledge of English, said Abel Núñez, the executive director of Carecen, a social services organization for Latino immigrants. “The construction industry was booming and these people wanted to work,” he said.
Temporary protected status does not provide a path to citizenship, but most of these workers never thought they would face deportation. They have been in the United States legally, for nearly two decades in many cases. Some have bought homes and cars and have settled into middle-class lives. Many have children who are American citizens.
There are nearly 46,000 people under the program in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal group that opposes the Trump administration’s move. Over all, the Washington area is home to nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, the largest group of foreign-born residents in the region.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Alexander Garray, who has temporary protected status and spends his days 120 feet below Washington, boring a huge tunnel for water and sewage that will result in cleaner rivers in the region. “I pay taxes, I’ve never had a problem with the law, and I own a home. I don’t understand why they are trying to kick us out.”
Construction is not the only industry that relies heavily on immigrants with a tenuous foothold in the United States. They make up much of the work force in chicken processing, meatpacking, garment manufacturing and food services. In August, federal immigration enforcement agents raided several poultry plants in Mississippi, arresting nearly 700 people on the suspicion that they were undocumented.
The decision to deport workers who have been in the country legally with temporary protected status strikes Dennis Desmond, a union official, as ironic because some of them have been hired to work at sensitive locations like Fort Meade, Md., the headquarters of the National Security Agency.
“They’ve been allowed to work on these critical projects but now it’s like they are not fit to remain in the country,” said Mr. Desmond, the business manager of Local 11 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. He estimated that 20 percent of his union’s members were in the United States under the temporary protected status program.
The origins of the program can be traced to American support for El Salvador’s right-wing government during the country’s civil war in the 1980s, said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.
A congressional staff member at the time, he helped to draw up the legislation that created the program as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. “We were supporting a government and a military responsible for much of the violence,” Mr. McGovern said. “There was a feeling we weren’t doing enough to help the people caught in the middle.”
With the end of the civil war in 1992, protected status expired, but it was renewed after a series of devastating earthquakes hit El Salvador in 2001.
Natives of the Central American country now constitute 60 percent of beneficiaries of temporary protected status, according to the Congressional Research Service.
El Salvador was the first, but the program was eventually extended to citizens of 10 countries, mostly in Central America, the Middle East or East Africa. Applicants have to be in the United States to qualify when people from their countries are designated for protected status.
The program was extended periodically by Republican and Democratic administrations, and those who had temporary protected status typically renewed it every 18 months.
But last year, the Trump administration moved to end protected status for immigrants from six of the countries — El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan — arguing that it was never meant to provide a permanent haven. In the case of El Salvador, the Department of Homeland Security concluded in January 2018 that the conditions that prevailed starting in 2001 “no longer exist.”
“Many reconstruction projects have now been completed,” the department said. “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.”
The workers, however, say that it is unthinkable for them and their children to leave for El Salvador, which is mired in poverty and gang violence, and the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network persuaded a federal judge in San Francisco to issue a preliminary injunction in October blocking their deportation.
The Trump administration has appealed the ruling, and legal experts say the issue could end up before the Supreme Court. At a federal appellate-court hearing last month, protected-status holders packed a courtroom in Pasadena, Calif., and judges had tough questions for both sides.
For now, any action by the government to deport the protected workers can’t happen before next year.
“The statute is clear that the administration has the authority” to end temporary protected status, said Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “But it is also clear what factors must be considered in making those determinations. The plaintiffs have made a strong argument that this administration is looking for a predetermined outcome.”
In June, the House approved legislation that would allow those already covered by the program to apply for permanent residency, but the bill is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Ever Guardado, 38, came to the United States from El Salvador illegally through Mexico in 2000 after he was unable to find work at home. When the government offered protected status for Salvadorans the next year, he signed up.
Mr. Guardado said the administration’s decision to end his protected status had put his life in limbo. “I never thought they would take it away,” he said. “Now I’m scared every day.”
Although he had no experience in construction — he had worked on farms back home — other Salvadoran immigrants helped him find jobs on building sites. “I could see I could make money,” Mr. Guardado said.
“I thought I would be secure forever,” he said. He earns nearly $30 an hour working on transportation projects, owns a home in Sterling, Va., and has three children, who are United States citizens.
Nationally, construction is the second-largest employer of those in the program, employing some 44,000 people. Only companies that do building-and-grounds maintenance have more.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said that construction in Houston, another center of Salvadoran immigration, would also be threatened if the program were terminated. Nationally, he said, more than three-quarters of construction firms say they cannot find enough workers.
“We don’t want our children to work in construction, but we don’t want people to come from overseas and do it either,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Mr. Garray, the tunnel worker, came from El Salvador in 2000 on a tourist visa to visit his sister and mother. There were few job opportunities to go home to, and he soon found work in construction in Washington.
When Salvadorans became eligible for temporary protected status the next year, Mr. Garray signed up. Since then, he has worked his way up from laborer to equipment operator, and he now earns $32 an hour.
With overtime and double shifts, he has made more than $80,000 a year for the last several years, enough to buy a home and help raise his two daughters, both United States citizens.
By contrast, his mother, an American citizen, earns $8.50 as a housekeeper at a Virginia hotel. Unlike him, she does not face deportation, a prospect that gnaws at him.
“I think about it all the time,” Mr. Garray said before heading back into the tunnel. “Morning, noon and night. Even in my dreams.”