In his last sermon in 1980 just before he was assassinated, Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador said, “The great task of Christians must be to absorb the spirit of God's kingdom and, with souls filled with the kingdom of God, to work on the projects of history. It's fine to be organized in popular groups; it's all right to form political parties; it's all right to take part in the government. It's fine as long as you are a christian who carries the reflection of the kingdom of God and tries to establish it where you are working, and as long as you are not being used to further worldly ambitions.”
Romero’s words still ring profoundly true in light of the Trump administration’s recent decision to revoke the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) of 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States.
Romero spoke to the civil war in El Salvador in which members of the military and police were torturing and slaughtering peasants throughout the country. In his sermon, he appealed directly to them: “It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order.”
It is also high time Christians in the US, particularly those in the Trump administration, rather than attacking the most vulnerable people in our country, recovered their consciences and demonstrated the care and compassion that is supposed to characterize the faith they claim.
Many Salvadorans came to the US to escape the brutality of the civil war. Others came seeking reprieve from the poor economic and social conditions that followed the war. In 2001, following two devastating earthquakes in El Salvador, the Bush administration granted these migrants reprieve with a Temporary Protected Status that allowed them to live and work legally in the US. The TPS has been renewed several times since.
In the meantime, these people have had families and built lives in the US. Eighty-eight percent of them participate in the workforce. They have had over 190,000 children who are American citizens. Nearly a quarter of them have purchased homes.
And now the Trump administration has decided they must go (as it did recently with Haitians and Nicaraguans who had also been protected by TPS). Despite the ongoing poverty, violence, drought, and lack of opportunity in El Salvador, the Trump administration argues that the original reason for the TPS no longer exists—conditions created by the earthquakes—and so the TPS should be rescinded and these people sent back to El Salvador.
So the political party that has so often touted “family values” will require families with American children to decide whether parents will take these children to a country they do not know or if they will leave them with guardians in the US or if they will stay, no longer able to work legally and therefore vulnerable to lower wages and deportation.
Additionally, most of these people send money back home. About one in 20 families in El Salvador rely on this extra income to survive. The total is about $600 million annually, more than US aid to El Salvador and about 2% of El Salvador’s GDP. This means the devastation of rescinding Salvadoran’s TPS ripples beyond families in the US and throughout a country already struggling to meet basic needs.
The liberation theologies that arose in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the grinding poverty and abuse of human rights characteristic of US-backed strong men and militaries understood the hypocrisy and heresy of oppressing the poor. They contended that at its core, the gospel called people to side with the poor and oppressed, for whom God shows a preferential option.
The people for whom Oscar Romero fought still face many of the same struggles, and now the Trump administration has added to those woes by choosing racism and xenophobia over compassion and human dignity and worth.
Congress should act immediately on legislation that will allow people with TPS to stay permanently in the US. We have the opportunity to offer welcome and support to a people who have suffered too long under repressions in which the US government has played a part.
Romero’s words should still send a searing conviction into the hearts of those who continue to oppress Salvadorans: “The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”