Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Time’s up, start packing. That’s the message the Trump administration announced on Monday for nearly 200,000 people from El Salvador who have been living here under a humanitarian program known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS – some for almost 17 years.
TPS allows people who are already in the United States to work and enjoy temporary legal status because of war, natural disasters or epidemics in their home countries.
Salvadorans qualified for this designation after a pair of devastating earthquakes rocked their country in 2001. Not anymore. In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said, “Based on careful consideration of available information … the current TPS designation must be terminated.”
This decision is shortsighted and cruel. It will tear communities apart and cause needless pain and suffering for Salvadoran families. It will have a negative economic impact on both the United States and El Salvador. In the long run, DHS’ decision could also exacerbate problems like illegal immigration and the scourge of gangs like MS-13 that the administration says it is against.
To be clear, the Salvadorans affected by this decision are not undocumented immigrants. They have a right to be here, thanks to a decision by then-President George W. Bush that they qualified for TPS protection in 2001. These protections have since been renewed several times.
The reasoning behind TPS is that it protects people from having to return to countries that are in crisis. Other countries that have qualified for TPS over the years include ravaged locales like Bosnia, Somalia and Kuwait. Salvadorans who benefit from the program now have until September 2019 to find a way to adjust their status, or they must leave the country.
One difficulty facing Salvadoran TPS recipients is that, because their protections have been renewed for so long, they now have roots here. A 2017 University of Kansas survey of 261,000 Salvadoran, Honduran and Nicaraguan TPS recipients found that most were contributing to the United States as taxpayers, business owners and homeowners. And 83.2% of men and 54.9% of women were working full time.
And to complicate matters, after almost two decades in the United States, Salvadoran TPS recipients are parents to about 190,000 US-citizen children. Now these Salvadoran parents face a wrenching decision. Do they make arrangements to leave the United States without their kids, or do they take them back to El Salvador, a country they have never known?
That’s where things get scary. Homeland Security says that, because some infrastructure in El Salvador has been reconstructed since the earthquakes, Salvadorans no longer belong in the program. However, the situation in El Salvador is far from stable.
The country’s violence, gang problems and high murder rate are still very real dangers. With an average of 11 reported killings a day, El Salvador ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world not at war. And that’s not even taking into account its extrajudicial killings by security forces and “disappearances.” In the latter situation, people simply go missing and there is no action taken by police or local officials, in part because Salvadorans are fearful to report such crimes.
What’s more, El Salvador is not prepared to reabsorb the TPS holders, as the mayor of the capital city of San Salvador recently stated on CNN. If the TPS holders were sent back or returned, it would place a huge strain on the country, which is why the government of El Salvador had lobbied for the TPS designation to be extended. Consider that remittances (money sent home from overseas) account for 17% of the country’s GDP. Or that last year, TPS recipients alone sent $500 million back to El Salvador, which is a great boost to the country’s sluggish economy.
The decision to end TPS for Salvadorans will likely have tragic, unintended consequences as well. If families decide to return home, their children will be in grave danger. Young men in El Salvador are frequently targeted for recruitment by brutal gangs, while young women face the danger of sexual violence (for the past few years, El Salvador has been listed as one of the deadliest places in the world for women).
If the situation in the country proves too much for returnees to bear, it could set off another wave of illegal immigration to the United States. Those Salvadoran TPS holders who decide to remain here illegally will join the ranks of the undocumented living in the shadows. So, in a sense, the administration’s decision could actually increase the size of our unauthorized population, which is hardly a desirable outcome.
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Yes, by its very definition the TPS program was not designed to last forever. But with our unemployment rate at a 17-year low, who really gains by removing the protections for law-abiding Salvadorans? Who will feel safer because we will soon be forcing these people to leave? The answer to both questions is no one – except perhaps the immigration hard-liners in the White House.
Congress could address this problem, passing legislation to create a path to citizenship for these Salvadorans. But in the current political climate, this seems unlikely. Just consider that the Trump administration has already ended TPS for Haitians and Nicaraguans, and terminated DACA for immigrant youth last year – and Congress, though in negotiation with the President – has yet to successfully act on behalf of any of these groups.