The US government announced on Monday (Jan 8) the end of a special protected status for about 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants, a move that threatens with deportation tens of thousands of well-established families with children born in the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced the end of the "temporary protected status" (TPS) granted to Salvadorans already in the United States in 2001, when two major earthquakes rocked the Central American country.
They were given 18 months to leave or be deported, which officials said is enough time for a legislative solution to be crafted by Congress to allow them to stay.
"Only Congress can legislate a permanent solution addressing the lack of an enduring lawful immigration status of those currently protected by TPS who have lived and worked in the United States for many years," said the Department of Homeland Security.
Part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration by President Donald Trump, the move comes after 59,000 longtime resident Haitians and 5,300 Nicaraguans were stripped of similar protections late last year, after having been allowed to set deep roots inside the United States for decades.
Democrats in Congress are also fighting to protect the right to stay inside the US of 690,000 young immigrants known as "Dreamers," people who arrived in the country as children.
Trump has said he will back a compromise on the Dreamers if Congress budgets US$18 billion to build an anti-immigrant wall along the border with Mexico.
CRACKDOWN ON ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION
Many if not most of those shielded by TPS had originally entered the country illegally or overstayed visas, but the programme had effectively allowed them to settle down without the constant fear of deportation.
Previous governments rolled over the protected status with little debate, but Trump has pursued a tougher "law and order" approach to the issue.
DHS said Nielsen made the decision after a review determined "that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist" and that extending the 17-year-old TPS cannot be justified.
For beneficiaries of the programme, the decision was a thunderbolt.
"My life is here," said Minda Hernandez, a 48-year-old housekeeper from Long Island who fled conflict in El Salvador 20 years ago - leaving a one-year-old child behind.
"This is where my home is, where I pay my taxes. I am happy here - even if I work myself to death."
Now she fears most for her 16-year-old son, who was born in the United States.
"There are so many gangs and crime back there," she says. "But how could I leave him here alone?"
In San Salvador, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren avoided criticising Washington and focused on the 18 month grace period.
Ceren's administration "considers this decision to be a recognition of the contribution of our compatriots who hold this migratory benefit, who are an important workforce in that country," the presidency said.
Ceren's government has grown closer to the United States, and was one of only eight countries at the United Nations to support the US move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December.
The decision on Monday was one of the Trump administration's most substantial moves yet to enforce its crackdown on illegal immigration.
IMPORTANT TO ECONOMY
Without a change in the law, the move will force some 195,000 Salvadorans to leave the country by Sep 9, 2019.
This impacts large communities of deeply-rooted people in California, Texas and around the US capital, more than 135,000 households, according to the Centre for Migration Studies.
Nearly all have jobs, over a quarter own homes with a mortgage, 10 per cent are self-employed and about 10 per cent have married US citizens.
The decision will also impact nearly 193,000 children of Salvadorans born inside the United States - and who therefore have citizenship rights unlike their parents.
Washington union activist Jaime Contreras, who arrived from El Salvador in 1988 and earned his citizenship, called the DHS decision "shameful" and "inhumane."
"We have 18 months to pressure Congress and tell them it's time once and for all to give TPS holders a path to citizenship," he said during a small protest outside the White House immediately following the announcement.
Democrats in Congress condemned the decision, many noting that the high level of insecurity in El Salvador, where criminal gangs run rampant, puts the lives of returnees in danger.
"Today's decision is a poignant reminder that we have an anti-immigrant president who turns his back on hardworking families and insists on governing by fear and intimidation,"
"Revoking TPS for Salvadorans will not only tear families apart, deportation could expose thousands of them to potentially dangerous and life-threatening situations," said Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.