Immigrants and activists protest Monday near the White House to demand that the Department of Homeland Security extend Temporary Protected Status for 200,000 Salvadorans. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Because she didn't know how else to calm her nerves on Monday, Carmen Paz Villas did what she does best. She went to work, cleaning rooms at the hotel. On her day off.

"And now, I cry and cry," Paz Villas said, in between rooms, when she learned that, no matter how hard she works, the country she's called home for 18 years doesn't want her family anymore. "Everybody with TPS, all we can do is cry now."

Welcome to the limited-edition 2018 version of the American Dream.

Because, according to our government today, it's not enough to work hard, open a 401(k), buy a home, obey the law, start a business, get a Costco card, become a sports fan, win Employee of the Month and have a family to become an American.

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced the end to Temporary Protected Status for 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador, who have until Sept. 9, 2019, to find a way to obtain a green card or leave the United States.

That means Paz Villas's husband can't stay. He's from El Salvador. She's from Honduras, and the administration announced two months ago that roughly 57,000 Hondurans in the United States with protected status like her may also have to leave soon. So much for their home, their kids, their neighbors and their friends in Gaithersburg.

Across the nation — especially in the Washington area, which has one of the nation's largest concentration of Salvadorans — immigrants went to work, picked the kids up, paid their bills and worried whether this new America is not for them.

"This is devastating for them, yes," said Lindolfo Carballo, 55, who came to the United States from El Salvador 27 years ago, escaping a civil war hellscape that meant seeing five or six dead people in the streets every day. "But what about America? The country will hurt, too. These people own homes. They have jobs. They help build this country. They aren't going to be the only ones hurt."

The folks I talked to — workers and business owners with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — are quietly despairing. Because staying quiet, staying out of trouble, is what gave them legal status year after year.

‘We will lose practically everything’: Salvadorans devastated by TPS decision

"Why don't they just become legal?" people angry about illegal immigration always ask. Because Grandpa Giuseppe did it legally. Uncle Seamus did it legally.

Yes. But in those days, immigration was much, much easier. Today, the backlogged immigration system makes applying for political asylum or other forms of permanent legal status far more difficult. Obtaining citizenship can be impossible.

"That process is over a decade long. It can cost thousands of dollars. It's not realistic," said Ava Benach, an immigration lawyer in the D.C. area.

Benach proved that point Monday morning, when she looked at her calendar for the week.

"I'm going to the asylum office this week for a client who applied for asylum, let's see, July 8, 2014," she said. "The interview on her asylum application was finally scheduled this week."

And during those years of waiting, the immigrant can be sent back at any moment, at the whim of an unforgiving immigration official or judge.

"They can always initiate removal," Benach said. Traditionally, unless a crime is committed, officials have been generous in waiting the process out.

"But now we're operating in a brave new world," she said.

Carballo, the man who escaped the daily bloodshed of El Salvador's civil war, didn't become an American citizen because of his hard work, years of law-abiding citizenry and doting fatherhood. He got the golden ticket of citizenship because he married an American.

At a quick rally gathered outside the White House on Monday, the mood was defiant, not sad.

She can’t bear to leave her kids. But she doesn’t want to be a criminal.

There was the woman wearing a red hat, matching the rest of her red, white and blue outfit. Her Texas-sized bleached-blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders, and she lugged a huge American flag on a wooden pole as she posed in front of the White House for a selfie.

When a speaker at the rally said "make America great again," Ivania C. Castillo, a self-described Reagan Republican, cheered. Because for her and for the dozens of Latinos gathered in the sleet outside the White House, America used to be great. Before Monday.

"I am the voice telling people like me to vote," said Castillo, who came from El Salvador in 1980. She had a clear path to citizenship back then and took it. But today, the country isn't as open to hard-working people like her, she said.

"I used to believe in Republicans. But what those Republicans did today, they are going to pay for it," she said. "There are 27 million Latinos like me, and we are going to vote to change America. To make it great again, so everyone like me has a chance at citizenship again."

Immigrants "are the ones that are making America great," said Abel Nunez, executive director of Carecen, a Latino advocacy group. "This is what America is about."

Until now.

"Based on careful consideration of available information," the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement, "the Secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated."

No matter that El Salvador remains one of the nation's deadliest places.

But even if things got better in El Salvador, would that mean immigrants should return? What about the Irish who fled the potato famine? The Germans? The Italians? Oh my gosh, Prague is doing marvelously now. Should my Czech immigrant parents, who fled communism, be forced to return?

Nunez asked the crowd: "Are we leaving?"

And the crowd yelled back: "No!"

"That's right," he said. "We are here to stay."

And they should. They have earned it.

Twitter: @petulad

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