"I understand now what the people feel," Mario Guevara, 34, told CNN. "Never in my life have I cried so much as in the last couple of days."
An immigration judge turned down Guevara's application for asylum last month and ordered that he, his wife and their 14-year-old daughter leave the United States within 60 days.
Guevara, who works for the Spanish-language publication Mundo Hispanico, which is owned by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said, "It was the worst news of my life."
CNN said Guevara's two younger children, who were born in the United States, could remain in the country. Guevara's mother and brother, who is in the U.S. Army, also are U.S. citizens.
Guevara moved with his family to Atlanta in 2004. He had been working as a photojournalist for the Prensa Grafica newspaper in San Salvador and often covered anti-government demonstrations. Some demonstrators accused him of working as an undercover agent for the government, which he denies.
He said he moved to the United States after being attacked and twice threatened with death.
He entered the United States on a tourist visa and didn't complete paperwork seeking asylum right away. He said he had plans to return to El Salvador "when the situation got better, but that never happened."
He has pointed to post-traumatic stress disorder to explain his delay completing the asylum paperwork.
Guevara said the immigration judge gave three reasons for denying the asylum application: late filing, that no Salvadoran journalists have been attacked or killed for political reasons in the past two years and that Guevara couldn't prove police in El Salvador would not protect him.
Guevara said he plans to appeal the decision.
He said he believes those who threatened to kill him nine years ago would find him if he returned.
"I do not want to return to a country where there is a lot of peril," he said. "I do not want that life for my children."
Vincent Picard, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, said the department would not track Guevara and deport him if he does not leave the country voluntarily.
"Voluntary departure is not an option for me," Guevara said. "I don't see going to El Salvador as an option. Here in this country, I have found everything I need."