ACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants
Trump officials end immigration protection for 260K Salvadorans
The Trump administration on Monday said it would end the protected status that allows 262,500 immigrants from El Salvador to stay in the country, forcing those people to either leave the country or find another means of legally staying in the United States.
The dramatic announcement is the fourth such change to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) that has been made by the Trump administration, which has taken a tough line on immigration issues.
Between all TPS cuts and the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Trump administration has ended immigration benefits for nearly 1 million people in less than a year.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus immigration taskforce, said the decision would uproot people who have lived in the United States for decades.
"The White House is peddling a fantasy where hundreds of thousands of people who have established their lives, families, and businesses in the U.S. for decades will leave or can be rounded up and deported," he said. "Turning immigrants living and working legally in the U.S. into undocumented immigrants defies logic, even for this president."
The cancellation could add tension to talks between the White House and Congress about legislation that would allow DACA recipients to stay in the country. Those negotiations are closely tied to efforts to prevent a government shutdown this month.
The Salvadorans affected by the order have been in the United States since at least 2001, when TPS status was granted after two devastating earthquakes ravaged the country. The decision also allowed hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran civil war refugees who were in the United States legally or illegally to remain and work stateside.
TPS benefits are awarded to foreign citizens residing in the United States whose home countries undergo devastating natural or man-made disasters, making a return dangerous or unsustainable. Previous Democratic and Republican administrations routinely renewed TPS country designations for the maximum 18-month period, based on a holistic assessment of countries' ability to reabsorb their emigrants.
Under Trump, DHS has moved to a stricter interpretation of the TPS statute, where only conditions directly related to the original disaster - in El Salvador's case, the two earthquakes - are taken into account.
"Following the 2001 earthquakes, El Salvador received millions of dollars in international aid," said a senior administration official. "Accordingly, many reconstruction projects have been completed."
The official said the decision to end the TPS status was made based on whether El Salvador would be able to absorb the beneficiaries, regardless of their situation in the United States.
"Conditions on the ground is really what we look at. We don't look at economic impact in the U.S.," said the official.
Senior administration officials said an "interagency review process" considered country conditions in El Salvador and its ability to take back its citizens in the decision.
El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, host to persistent gang-based violence despite government efforts to quell criminal groups like MS-13.
It's also one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, with a per-capital gross domestic product of around $4,200, despite consistent growth since the 1990s.
Previous designations have been terminated for immigrants from Sudan, Haiti and Nicaragua. The Honduran designation was allowed to automatically renew for the minimum six months by former acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke.
According to a report by the Immigrant Legal Resource Council, deporting Salvadoran TPS holders would cost $1.8 billion and lead to a GDP reduction of $3.9 billion and $4.8 billion in lost Social Security and Medicare contributions over the next decade.
Salvadoran TPS holders are mostly concentrated in California, Texas, the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, and New York.
Administration officials said they didn't "have handy" the number of U.S. citizens born to Salvadoran TPS holders, but said the administration has no policy as to whether those U.S. minors should remain in the United States or go with their parents to El Salvador after 2019.
"We're not getting involved in individual family decisions," said the official.
DHS officials argued that the Trump administration is simply the first in the program's existence to treat it as the temporary program that it was originally intended to be.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the 18-month delay would allow for Salvadoran citizens to arrange their departure and for El Salvador to prepare for their arrival, but also opened the door to Congressional action on the issue.
"Only Congress can legislate a permanent solution addressing the lack of an enduring lawful immigration status of those currently protected by TPS who have lived and worked in the United States for many years. The 18-month delayed termination will allow Congress time to craft a potential legislative solution," said Nielsen.
Supporters of the administration's immigration policy said the move could ultimately save the TPS program as a whole.
"By ending the Salvadoran TPS, Secretary Nielsen has taken a major step toward saving the TPS program so it can be used for future emergencies," said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an influential group that works to restrict immigration. "The past practice of allowing foreign nationals to remain in the United States long after an initial emergency in their home countries has ended has undermined the integrity of the program and essentially made the 'temporary' protected status a front operation for backdoor permanent immigration."
House Democrats who'd previously fought for legislation to give permanent status to TPS holders said they'd retake the issue.
"America is better than this and I will do all I can in the next 18 months to fight this terrible decision and work with my colleagues to pass bipartisan legislation to help regularize the residency status of long-term TPS holders," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass).