LAS VEGAS (AP) — Ericka Lopez spent much of her childhood bickering with her brothers and sister. Now, when her four kids start to argue, she reminds them that they need to stay on the same team.
That's an important message right now because the family could be splintered if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security terminates temporary protected status, or TPS, for immigrants from El Salvador, as it recently did for Nicaraguans and Haitians. If that happens, Ericka and her two eldest children could be forced to leave the country while her two youngest remain behind.
"My sister graduates in a year-and-a-half, and we might not be there for those events,'' said Glenda Ramos Lopez, Ericka's second-oldest child. "It makes them sad, but we have to be realistic about it.''
Ericka emigrated from her homeland 17 years ago with her two oldest kids, Ariel, 22, and Glenda, 19, settling in Las Vegas with her ex-husband. She declined to say how they entered the country.
She gave birth to her two youngest daughters, Ana, 16, and Emily Garcia, 12, after their arrival, making them U.S. citizens.
All five have been legal U.S. residents since 2001, when a major earthquake shook El Salvador.
In March of that year, the U.S. extended TPS — an immigration status given to nationals of countries deemed unsafe for re-entry because of temporary conditions, such as armed conflict and natural disaster — to Salvadorans living in the U.S. That provided Ericka with the opportunity to legally obtain a work permit and protected the entire family from deportation.
By Jan. 8, the Trump administration will decide whether to extend the status for up to 18 months.
In her years in Las Vegas, Ericka has become an American in every sense except for actual citizenship, she said. She lives in an apartment in North Las Vegas with her kids and has worked her way up from a job doing laundry for local casinos to become an organizer for the local hospitality worker's union, Culinary Workers Union Local 226.
"For me, right now I can say that I found the opportunity that I never dreamed (of) before,'' Ericka said, choking back tears at the thought that the dream might end.
She's worried about losing her job and not being able to pay the bills. Her kids worry about separation. Without TPS, Ericka, Ariel and Glenda would no longer be in the country with legal permission and subject to deportation.
'It's just so scary'
"When people from Nicaragua lost their TPS (in November), it became more real,'' said Glenda. "Honestly, I can't really describe it. It's just so scary.''
Critics argue that TPS was never meant to be permanent. It's not a path to citizenship, though there are avenues for TPS-holders to apply for permanent resident status — a green card — through a citizen spouse or a child older than 21.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for low immigration levels, said the main problem with the TPS program is that it has been repeatedly extended, even when the situations in designated countries have vastly improved.
"Until now there's been nothing as permanent as a temporary refugee, and it has to end,'' he said. "If there's the potential for it to be permanent, then do that so that Congress has to vote on it. . Or if you're not going to do that, don't call it temporary protected status.''
Dee Sull, a Las Vegas immigration attorney, said some immigrants from TPS countries may be able to legally remain in the U.S.
"It's a grant of benefits, and benefits can be taken away,'' she said, adding that her office has been helping TPS-holders explore options like investor visas for business owners or green cards for those with eligible relative connections.
"We're trying to get creative on how to keep them in status,'' Sull said. "We want to be realistic as well of what we think we can achieve for them and how we're going to bridge a gap legally.''
Glenda doesn't have any memories of El Salvador. She was 2 when she arrived in Las Vegas with her mom and brother. Her first memories are of growing up in Nevada.
"I've never planned to leave the country,'' Glenda said. "I've planned to be here, for me to finish college, for me to start work.''
She's studying journalism at the College of Southern Nevada with hopes of finding a job in public relations in the beauty industry.
Glenda said she's not sure how she would put that to use in El Salvador.
"I think my entire life would fall apart,'' she said.
Ana, the teenager who could be left behind, wonders how she would care for her little sister if her family were deported.
"I realize that day would be so heartbreaking and destroying to them, but that's just as destroying to me,'' she said. "It just scares me to know someone wouldn't care about taking my whole family from me.''
Ahead of the holidays, Ericka said she looked forward to hugs from her siblings, who live in Las Vegas, and a chance to talk about the things they've overcome. The possibility of becoming undocumented is the concern of 2018, she said.
"You can't think of planning vacation or something, or the birthday parties,'' Ericka said. "My plan is waiting for the president's plan.''