WASHINGTON ― A lot of unglamorous work goes into running the salad bar in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, from cleaning off the sneeze guards to picking up all the lettuce that senators and their staffers drop during the lunch rush. Immigrants like Raquel Guzman do much of that labor.
Originally from El Salvador, Guzman has worked in the Senate for the last 10 years, scraping by as she and her husband, a janitor at Whole Foods, try to raise four children in suburban Washington. But last week, the 37-year-old learned that as far as the U.S. government is concerned, her services will no longer be needed.
Guzman has been working legally under what’s known as temporary protected status, a program that has allowed nearly 200,000 people from El Salvador to remain in the U.S. since 2001, when their native country was rocked by devastating earthquakes. The Trump administration, which has vowed to crack down on both legal and illegal immigration, announced Jan. 8 that it will end the TPS program for Salvadorans next year, meaning people like Guzman will lose their work permits and face deportation.
The U.S. government expects Guzman and her husband to return to a country they haven’t seen in nearly two decades. And if they go, they will have to decide whether to bring their children or leave them behind.
“I have never asked anything of the government,” said Guzman, who came to the U.S. in 2000. Seated at a Senate cafeteria table after a recent shift, she spoke in Spanish through an interpreter and at times wiped tears from her face. “We have just worked the whole time. We’re not doing any harm to anybody.”
The Washington area is home to an estimated 32,000 TPS holders from El Salvador ― the largest such concentration in the nation. Low-wage Salvadorans with TPS protections serve members of Congress and White House officials every day, whether the latter realize it or not. These workers bus the tables at fancy K Street restaurants. They park the cars in expensive garages. They vacuum the downtown office buildings long after dark. And they pick up the mess left behind at the Senate salad bar.
So while the imminent end of TPS has left Salvadorans around the country with wrenching decisions to make, the federal government’s about-face comes with a dose of painful irony for Washington-area workers like Guzman: They’re being given the boot by the political elite for whom they’ve labored many years.
“I have never asked anything of the government. We have just worked the whole time.”
“The whole time I have worked ― day and night,” said Maria Fuentes, another TPS recipient from El Salvador who cleans the tables and floors in the Dirksen cafeteria. Like Guzman, Fuentes has spent a decade picking up after Senate power brokers. She has two grown children who also have been shielded by TPS and will face deportation, she said.
Although there are no official statistics on how many Salvadoran workers with TPS status are employed on federal properties in and around Washington, the number is “significant,” according to Paco Fabian, a spokesman for Good Jobs Nation, a labor group that’s been organizing low-wage workers employed under federal contracts. That makes the U.S. government as much a beneficiary of TPS labor as many a private janitorial company, construction firm or restaurant.
Guzman and Fuentes, who are both members of Good Jobs Nation, said they know other TPS workers inside the Senate buildings as well as at the Supreme Court, just across the street. All of them work for contractors rather than directly for the government, they said.
“If they’re good enough to work in federal buildings, and they’re good enough to serve senators and members of Congress, then they should be good enough to stay in this country,” said Fabian.
Nationwide, Salvadorans make up more than half of the roughly 300,000 immigrants living in the U.S. under TPS. The White House has already said it is also dropping protections for those from Haiti, Sudan and Nicaragua. Within the next year, it will have to decide the fate of immigrants from Honduras. Aside from TPS, the administration has also ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded from deportation young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
The Trump administration notes that TPS protections were never meant to be permanent, and that the earthquakes that plunged El Salvador into chaos happened 17 years ago. But the beneficiaries of the program have put down deep roots in the U.S. after years of working legally ― many of them, like Guzman, raising children who are U.S. citizens and have never set foot in El Salvador.
That country’s leaders say it is not prepared for the return of thousands of TPS holders. El Salvador, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, is still a dangerous place for many of those who fled. Fuentes said her husband was murdered in El Salvador in 1993. Guzman said she and several family members left after it became clear that her nephew’s life was in danger.
Guzman and her husband have had agonizing discussions about breaking up their family. If either or both of them are to be deported, should their three children who are U.S. citizens remain in Washington?
Her 6-year-old daughter is worried, she said. “She doesn’t know El Salvador. She doesn’t want to go.”
The Trump administration said it expects Salvadorans with TPS to either secure legal residency or leave the country when their protections expire. Neither Guzman nor Fuentes has one of the most promising routes to parole: a child at least 21 years old who is a citizen and can petition for the parent to stay. Immigration advocates are pressuring Congress to provide TPS recipients like them with new protections, such as eligibility for green cards. So far, there are no signs of a bipartisan fix.
“The whole time I have worked -- day and night.”
Both women suspect they will stay in the U.S. until they are forced out. Their predicament hints at a likely scenario for many who can’t secure legal status in the coming months: to remain and work undocumented under the fear of deportation, rather than split up families and return to a country where their connections have frayed.
Some of those immigrants will inevitably lose their jobs if the companies they work for won’t employ people without work permits. But that doesn’t mean they’ll leave the labor pool, especially when the economy is humming at full employment, said Abel Nunez, director of D.C.’s Central American Resource Center, a legal aid group for immigrants.
“They will lose the ability to be in the formal workforce and go underground,” Nunez said. “They are not leaving. They will have to figure out how to re-engage with the informal work world. They will be more susceptible to abuse and earn lower wages.”
“It’s going to be an incredible disruption of family life and economic activity,” he added.
Salvadorans constitute a significant chunk of Washington’s construction and hospitality workforces. That means with the end of TPS, many employers will have to train new workers to fill the roles of the experienced ones they lay off. Even jobs commonly thought of as “unskilled” still require skills, and someone who has prepped and cleaned the salad bar in the Senate basement for years is probably pretty good at it.
“They need us here to do this work,” Guzman said.