Oscar Rodriguez

Oscar Rodriguez, a refugee from El Salvador, is shown at California Pupusas & Bakery in Sioux City. Rodriguez, whose grandparents and uncle were murdered in El Salvador, fears for his friends who may be sent back to the country if a Protected Status program is ended by President Donald Trump. 

JIM LEE, Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY | My ancestors came from Ireland, a place President Trump might have called a "s---hole" country in the 1840s.

The Gallaghers and Floods fled starvation and economic collapse during the Potato Famine, which killed 1 million Irish and sent another 1 million desperate men, women and children in search of hope. They washed up on U.S. shores poor, often sick, weak and largely unwanted. "NINA" signs greeted them: "No Irish Need Apply."

With the help of others, those Floods and Gallaghers busted their backs on farms and railroads, in factories, and, well, even at a newspaper in Emmetsburg.

They had to eat. They had to survive. They aimed to make life better for their children, or, as Rep. Steve King would put it, "other people's babies," who ultimately enriched Iowa communities such as Brooklyn, Osage and, generations later, Storm Lake and Moville.

Those thoughts stirred on Thursday as I listened to newcomers from El Salvador describing lives they left in coming to the U.S.

President Trump, who on Friday denied using the profanity in a meeting a day earlier with members of Congress, had earlier in the week called for phasing out the Temporary Protected Status for an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans who were allowed to live and work in the U.S. in the wake of 2001 earthquakes that displaced more than 1 million people.

Prior to 2001, the Central American nation endured civil war for 13 years. Subsequent gang warfare and high homicide rates have El Salvador rated as the world's third most dangerous country, according to the World Economic Forum.

Gang members murdered the maternal grandparents of Salvadoran Oscar Rodriguez, of Sioux City. An uncle, he added, was shot eight times before he died. The murderers then chopped off the man's head and his arms.

"I see on Facebook at least five deaths each day from gang members," said Rodriguez, who was granted asylum in the U.S. 16 years ago. He came here as a 10-year-old, unable to read or write. The 2011 West High graduate is now fluent in Spanish and English and works as a member of his brother's roofing crew. They completed their first roof of 2018 on Monday in Vermillion, South Dakota.

"We work as far away as Brookings, South Dakota," said Rodriquez, who is married and the father of two children. "We work on homes and businesses in Akron, Le Mars, Sioux City. In the summer, work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., sometimes 110 hours per week."

Rodriguez, who told me he pays sales taxes, income taxes, Social Security taxes and property taxes via his rent payment, downed three papusas prepared by Gloria Romero, a native of El Salvador who came to the U.S. in 1999, sponsored by a family member who lived in Los Angeles. Romero and her husband, Jorge Romero, and their three sons, settled in Sioux City in August of that year.

The Romeros worked for Sara Lee and Tur-Pak Foods and became U.S. citizens. In 2008, they opened California Papusas & Bakery on Sioux City's west side. Gloria opens her shop six days per week, serving customers who raise families while producing for firms such as Tyson Fresh Meats, Curly's Foods, and Beef Products Inc., among others. Jorge died of cancer in 2012.

"The people I know from El Salvador are scared," she said of those who have Temporary Protected Status. "They have their lives here in Sioux City."

A man from Storm Lake said he knows of at least 35 to 40 Salvadorans who work with him at Tyson Fresh Meats, slaughtering hogs in demanding jobs that keep food on the table for us and their growing families. The man and his wife, parents of two children, don't wish to identify themselves for the newspaper.

"My friends at Tyson are really feeling sad about it," he said of Trump's order. "They think they'll lose everything they have. They don't know if they have any other way of extending their stay here."

The man, who owns a home, said he's heard of friends who are considering a sale of their home and autos, fearful they may lose them anyway in their day of reckoning.

An immigration attorney suggested Salvadorans meet with a lawyer to examine options for possible work extensions. They have time as their Temporary Protected Status, which, as the title suggests, is temporary, would extend until September 2019. Homeland Security officials said conditions in El Salvador have improved since the earthquakes, thus making the Temporary Protected Status no longer applicable.

The man at Storm Lake disagreed. He said he knows of a Salvadoran who was deported last year and killed two days after setting foot back in his home country. The perception there is that if you came from the U.S., you have money.

"I also had a cousin who was 15 years old," he said. "He was picked up from school by gang members, taken to another town and killed."

Rodriguez, a refugee, knows of other tragedies. "I can't go back to El Salvador," he said. "I don't want to go back."

Whether or not President Trump described it as a "s---hole" country, it's where he, if he gets his way, will send 200,000 tax-paying U.S. workers and their children.

If he were president in the aftermath of the Potato Famine, I likely wouldn't be here. I probably wouldn't have been at all.

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