This story appears in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Cecilia Martínez was 15 in 1998 when she slipped into Arizona from Mexico. She came with no family and arrived to none, striking out on her own, scraping by on babysitting and bagging groceries. It was hard but preferable to her native El Salvador: “I came to work. Everyone said you could make a better life here.”
Indeed she has. Three years after she arrived, Martínez received temporary protected status (TPS), an immigration classification given to people from countries where conditions—such as armed conflict or natural disaster—would make returning unsafe. El Salvador qualifies: In 2001 two catastrophic earthquakes struck, and since then escalating warfare among gangs, police, and the military has made the nation one of the world’s deadliest outside of war zones.
Martínez is among the 200,000 Salvadorans who currently have TPS, meaning they can legally live and work in the United States. She has a business cleaning homes and construction sites on Long Island, New York. And she has two children, ages 17 and 12, who are U.S. citizens.
Today her life feels as uncertain as when she first arrived. In early 2018 the Trump administration declared that Salvadorans would lose TPS and should leave the country by September 2019. A court temporarily blocked the order, but there’s no final decision on Salvadorans’ fate, and it’s uncertain when one will be made.
To Martínez and many Salvadorans who have long made the United States their home, returning to El Salvador is unthinkable. She has become an activist, journeying to Washington, D.C., to tell lawmakers what will happen to families like hers if TPS is revoked. “When you have been living in the U.S.A. for so many years, they think you are rich, and the gangs come after you,” she says. “They ask for ‘rent’—that’s what they call it. They will go after my son, who is 17. They will hurt us if we don’t give them what they ask for.” In the coming year “our son planned to go to college,” Martínez says. “But now our life has stopped.”
We asked writer Jason Motlagh and photographers Moises Saman and Adam Ferguson to document the lives of Salvadorans in their homeland and in the United States. What plagues El Salvador—poverty, violence, lack of opportunity—exists also in Guatemala and Honduras. It explains why so many people are making a treacherous and probably fruitless walk north: They are looking, as Martínez did, to build a life with safety, dignity, and a future.
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