Immigrants and activists protest near the White House to demand that the Department of Homeland Security extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for more than 195,000 Salvadorans on January 8, 2018
Washington (AFP) - Two decades ago, Fatima Nolasco walked over the border into the United States in search of a better life, going on to build a successful business, and a new home.
Now, after Donald Trump decided to end a program that has allowed her to work legally in the country, along with 200,000 fellow immigrants from El Salvador, she fears she is about to lose it all.
Unless Congress can find a long-term solution to replace the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program granted to Salvadorans in 2001 after two earthquakes devastated their country -- Nolasco will lose her legal immigration rights in September 2019.
Under the plan's protections, Nolasco started a small construction and home remodeling business with her husband Walter Dubon, a permanent legal resident.
Today, they employ 20 workers and pay up to $30,000 a year in business taxes, on top of individual taxes.
"We've been paying taxes for 16 years," she said. "We never thought this would end like this. We always had hope that they would give us the opportunity."
Nolasco notes that her family does not rely on any government aid. In fact, TPS recipients do not qualify for needs-based government programs, but do contribute to them through payroll taxes.
- Economic hit -
"We have given ourselves a decent life as a result of our work and effort. I hope they realize we are not a burden on the country," she told AFP in an interview at her home near the capital Washington, which hosts a large population of Salvadorans.
While Trump takes credit for solid growth and jobs gains during his first year in office, economists and business leaders warn that expelling immigrant workers wholesale would cause a major hit to the economy.
This would be especially damaging at a time when firms increasingly complain they cannot find workers, especially in fields like construction -- a particular concern for rebuilding efforts in hurricane-hit areas of Houston and Florida.
One analysis shows that if Salvadoran TPS holders as well as tens of thousands from Honduras and Haiti were removed from the labor force, the United States would lose $164 billion in GDP over the next decade -- without counting $6.9 billion in lost contributions to Social Security and Medicare.
As much as 88 percent of those immigrants work -- much higher than the rate among US citizens -- while about a third own homes. Many, like Nolasco, own businesses.
If sent home, they face an uncertain future.
While the US government deems that conditions in El Salvador no longer justify protected status for its citizens, it still has a travel warning cautioning Americans that "gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread."
- 'We consider ourselves American' -
Trump has also announced the end of another program providing legal status to immigrants who were brought to the country as young children.
If Congress fails find a compromise, 800,000 people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) will lose their protections March 5.
Economists warn the US could lose $215 billion in GDP if the so-called "Dreamers" leave the labor pool.
Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google were among more than 100 major companies whose top executives signed a letter calling for protection for the "Dreamers," and warning that failure to act "will lead to businesses losing valuable talent, cause disruptions in the workforce and will result in significant costs."
Miguel Aguiler, who was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was 11, has found a route to legal status, but fears for his fellow "Dreamers."
"It's pretty ridiculous that the president wants to do away with so many young people who do nothing but contribute to this country," he told AFP.
"We've lived here all our lives, we consider ourselves American, even though we don't have the paper to show it."
He is a shining example of the American dream.
After passage of DACA, he attended a US college on a soccer scholarship and then was drafted to play in the domestic professional soccer league -- the first undocumented immigrant to achieve that goal.
He later married a US citizen, his college sweetheart, which allowed him to gain status as a permanent legal resident with a so-called green card.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, is optimistic Democrats and Republicans in Congress will find a solution to help "Dreamers."
"For better or for worse, the administration has provided a deadline to Congress to figure this out," he told AFP.