Washington, D.C., has the largest number of Salvadorans who face an imminent fear of deportation from Donald Trump’s new immigration policy. But long before Trump’s announcement, other forces were driving them out of the city.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Salvadorans are the largest group of immigrants in Washington, D.C., surpassing Mexicans, Cubans, and even Puerto Ricans. But that number could decline next year after the federal government’s decision to repeal the Temporary Protected Status, a benefit that since 2001 has allowed 200,000 Salvadorans to live legally in the United States, and which expires on September 9, 2019.
After that date, every Salvadoran who hasn’t changed her immigration status to another kind of visa or green card could be subject to deportation. The nation’s capital is home to the largest group of Salvadoran beneficiaries of this humanitarian policy: More than 32,000 Salvadorans from who live and work in the Washington metro area have TPS.
Many of these immigrants are now confronting an imminent fear of being ejected from the country. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser vowed in a statement to support these residents in whatever limited ways she can, by at least providing resources for their immigration defense. But Salvadorans in Washington, D.C., say Trump’s announcement has exacerbated other threats they face to staying in the city itself.
Long before Trump’s announcement, they say, Washington, D.C., was becoming an increasingly inhospitable environment for many Salvadorans. Skyrocketing housing prices and changing demographics have been driving them out of the city and shutting down their businesses. Many Salvadorans expect that with Trump’s announcement, threats of eviction and the economic forces pushing them out are only likely to get worse, even for those who don’t face deportation. All of this is not just an existential threat to Salvadoran immigrants; it could change the face of neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights whose flavor was long shaped by a heavy Salvadoran presence, and break up communities of Salvadorans built over several decades.
“The change has been very drastic,” says Yasmin Romero, a Salvadoran community leader and resident of Mount Pleasant. “The landlords are evicting people all the time, raising the rent in buildings where a lot of Salvadorans live. And now it’s getting worse, as they are taking advantage of this after the government removed the TPS.”
The arrival of Salvadorans in the District of Columbia was driven by immigration unleashed after the civil war, and by the low cost of living that characterized Washington during the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, the capital was an attractive city for immigrants compared to New York. The majority of Salvadorans who arrived in D.C. settled in the neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant in the 1980s, opening food businesses, remittance stores, and supermarkets of Latino products.
Edith Cuevas—originally from San Vicente, a city almost two hours east of the Salvadoran capital—has been a resident of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood for 28 years. She was one of the first people to start a Salvadoran business there. Cuevas opened a distributor of books, magazines, and miscellaneous items for the Hispanic community that began to reside in the northern part of the District. “People are afraid,” she says.
Cuevas has seen the neighborhood change little by little: Rents have gone up, forcing many families to leave their homes, close stores, and move to the suburbs of Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland. “The rent is expensive, everything goes up. Many people have had to leave—leave their businesses and their houses to go to other, cheaper places.”
These two maps compare the Salvadoran population in the metropolitan area of Washington between 2010 (map 1) and 2016 (map 2). According to data from the American Community Survey (ACS), the suburbs of Maryland, adjacent to the District of Columbia, saw a sharp increase in the number of Salvadorans who previously lived within the D.C. limits.
Romero has been living in Mount Pleasant for more than 20 years, where she is the president of the tenants’ association of her building and the only Latina commissioner in Mount Pleasant’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, an elected neighborhood government position.
Romero believes that many evictions and rent spikes for Salvadorans are rooted in how misinformed the community is. Many residents do not have information about their rights as tenants to avoid illegal eviction by landlords, or to limit rent increases for some units. Over the last few years, advocacy groups have alleged landlords were driving Latinos out of rent-controlled units in Mount Pleasant and neighboring Columbia Heights so they could charge higher prices.
Some neighborhood change, however, is solely economic. “Five years ago, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Mount Pleasant was $1,100, today it has gone up to $1,700 or $1,800,” says the commissioner. Romero says these rents have become even more unaffordable because of job losses in the community.
“A lot of people are losing their jobs, and the majority of them are Salvadorans,” she says. “Not only because stores and businesses are closing, but also because there aren’t as many people buying our products as there were before.”
As rents went up, several businesses closed throughout the neighborhood. One of them is the Pupusería San Miguel, a Salvadoran restaurant that has been operating since the 1970s at 3110 Mount Pleasant Street. Its owner, María Carvallo, a Salvadoran woman from the town of La Unión, had to close in October of last year after the continuous pressure from her landlord and the excessive increase in the rent of the premises. Another local Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant, Burritos Tex-Mex, also closed its doors less than eight months ago after operating for almost 9 years.
Columbia Heights, located next to Mount Pleasant and also a historic site of Salvadoran immigration, has not escaped this phenomenon. Reina Arias, owner of the famous El Rinconcito Café, has seen businesses close around her. Her restaurant opened 18 years ago, and in that time Arias has seen the whole neighborhood change with the arrival of a larger white, higher income population. “The number of businesses and restaurants has fallen because the rent does not stop rising. And now with the TPS, it will surely affect us. I am convinced that many people will want to go somewhere else, or even return to El Salvador,” she says.
Another of the many pupuserías in Columbia Heights—the name of which is being withheld for protection—has been running continuously for two decades. “When I arrived in the ‘80s, the bus cost 50 cents and the rent, then, 150 dollars per month,” says its owner. Today, a small one-bedroom apartment in Columbia Heights exceeds, on average, $1,900 per month.
But workers who have been with the restaurant for decades, and are still surviving in the neighborhood, nonetheless expressed optimism.
“Many things can change in 18 months,” said another pupusería worker, a nod to the amount of time left until TPS expires. “Who knows? You have to have faith.”
This post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.