The U.S. government opened the door to this life in 2001 when it granted Cortez and about 200,000 other migrants from El Salvador Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a provisional reprieve from deportation that has allowed them to work legally in the United States for 17 years.
On Monday, the federal government said the protection will end in September 2019, sending waves of outrage and anxiety from Washington to Los Angeles and to the Central American nation itself.
In Bethesda, Md., a janitor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center burst into tears. Before a news conference in Dallas, an advocate who has TPS took a moment to comfort his daughter, who is in the fifth grade and is worried that both of her parents will soon have to leave the United States.
At 15th and L streets NW in Washington, Cortez saw the news on his mobile phone while taking a break from laying copper pipe at the construction site of the new Fannie Mae headquarters.
"You feel like you're up in the air," the silver-haired 46-year-old said. "I feel bad and offended. They're playing with our stability."
Congress created the TPS program in 1990 to offer provisional humanitarian relief to migrants whose homelands were engulfed in war, natural disasters or other extraordinary conditions. Critics say past presidents misused the program by allowing it to drag on long after the emergencies passed.
Salvadorans were allowed to apply after two powerful earthquakes devastated their country in 2001. Many had come to the United States illegally or overstayed their visas, in some cases long before the earthquakes. For them, the program was an opportunity to reside legally in a country they saw as an escape from poverty and violence. They have since been vetted, bought homes and raised families, including an estimated 190,000 children who were born in this country and are U.S. citizens.
"I consider this my country," Cortez said.
The largest number of Salvadoran TPS recipients — about 32,000 people — live in the Washington area, studies show, followed by Los Angeles, New York and Houston.
Helen Avalos, a 41-year-old janitor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has three children, two grandchildren and a house in New Carrollton, Md. Her mother in El Salvador depends on the money she sends home.
"It doesn't affect just one person," she said of Monday's decision, her voice shaking. "It affects the whole family."
Though they have desperately tried to preserve it, Salvadorans say they have mixed feelings about TPS, which never offered them a path to legal residency. Every 18 months, they worried that the next extension would be the last. Now they say they will pour their energy into lobbying Congress to pass a law and let them stay.
"The reality is that TPS never took us anywhere, but it also is terrible to be left without anything," said Edwin Murillo, an official with the Dallas chapter of the National TPS Alliance, who spent part of Monday reassuring his daughter.
"We've lost a battle but not the war," said Orlando Zepeda, a TPS holder from Los Angeles. "We're going to put all our efforts into this fight."
Zepeda arrived at age 17, too late for the 1986 amnesty for undocumented immigrants signed by President Ronald Reagan. Now he is 52 and married to a fellow TPS holder, with two U.S.-born children whom he sends to private school.
Labor leaders said Salvadorans with protected status mop floors in Washington museums and empty wastebaskets at the World Bank. They are also construction workers, business owners, managers and investors. A mass exodus would impact the D.C. workforce and economy, as well as the economy in El Salvador, where TPS holders send millions of dollars to family members each year.
"It is going to be devastating for us," said Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). "Whether it's construction or the service industry, the impact it will have is just devastating."
Many Salvadorans say they will try to stay in the United States illegally — a fate they find more bearable than facing the rampant gang violence in their homeland. Cortez said he visited his parents in 2016 for the first time since he left and was shocked to see that the house had six locks on every door to ward off burglars. People he knew had left or died. Strangers stared at him on the street.
"I felt like a foreigner in my own land," he said. "Everyone is looking at you like you're from outer space."
His co-worker Jaime Contreras, a welder on the project that will extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, said TPS and his job have transformed his family, both in Maryland and in El Salvador.
As a child in El Salvador, Contreras went to school in the mornings and to work in the afternoons, painting houses at age 7 and welding at 11. At 20, he moved to the United States seeking higher wages. Now he is 37 and the owner of a modest yellow-brick house in Beltsville, where he lives with his wife and three U.S.-born children. He sends $300 a month to his mother in El Salvador to pay for treatments for her failing kidneys.
"My children, my wife and my mom depend on all this — and me, too," he said.
Both men said they are hoarding their savings in case they lose their jobs along with their protected status. Cortez has put off replacing his old Mitsubishi Montero, with 150,000 miles and a sputtering engine.
Like many TPS recipients, they say they will try to obtain legal residency. His wife is a legal resident, and Cortez hopes she will someday be able to sponsor him. Contreras said he is trying to get a green card through his wife, a U.S. citizen. But there are no guarantees.
"It's ugly," Contreras said. "Without legal papers, we will lose practically everything."
Cortez nodded. "We'll lose our jobs," he said. "We'll lose it all."
Nick Miroff and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.