It is no secret that protection offered by the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program to Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans lasted beyond “temporary,” extending over many years. Under TPS, migrants unable to return to their home countries because of war, natural disasters or other “extraordinary” conditions can live and work in the United States. The U.S. government granted TPS to Salvadorans in 2001, following two devastating earthquakes in the Central American country, and because of violence and instability in subsequent years, continued to approve extensions to the program.
Now, with the Trump administration’s announcement that it will not renew the TPS program for El Salvador, nearly 200,000 Salvadorans have until September 2019 to formalize their U.S. immigration status, or prepare to upend their lives and move back to one of the world’s poorest and most violent countries. Many of them — especially those with young children, sick relatives or small businesses — likely will choose to stay illegally in the United States and live in fear of deportation.
In El Salvador, high poverty levels, gang presence and homicide rates have not improved; in fact, in some areas these have worsened since 2001. As successive U.S. administrations renewed TPS, it created a group of people with long-term ties to this country but no pathway to citizenship.
A 2017 University of Kansas study found most of the estimated 261,000 Salvadoran and Honduran TPS recipients are homeowners, taxpayers and contributors; over half have lived in the United States for more than 20 years. In total they are thought to have about 270,000 U.S citizen children. What these people — and the communities that relied on their contributions — needed was a pathway to citizenship, not an abrupt and cruel pulling of the plug for the sake of appearing “tough” on immigration policy.
Terminating TPS does not make the United States safer, or its economy stronger, or its immigration system any less in need of comprehensive reform. What it does is force parents to decide whether they should pull their children out of school or prepare them to live parentless in the United States. It jerks people out of communities they have served as neighbors, church-goers and volunteers for almost two decades. It decimates local businesses.
What happens now? One problem is that El Salvador cannot reabsorb hundreds of thousands of migrants and their children, as the mayor of the country’s capital has said. El Salvador did report a drop in violence last year, compared to 2016, but with an average of 11 killings reported per day, El Salvador ranks among the world’s most violent countries not at war. (It’s unclear whether the 2017 homicide rate includes extrajudicial killings by security forces and disappearances.)
An influx of deportees from the United States could strengthen Salvadoran gangs hungry for recruits and trigger another wave of crime and violence, as happened in the mid-1990s when the U.S. deported thousands of gang-involved Central Americans.
The U.S. citizen children who accompany their families back to El Salvador will be particularly vulnerable, as violent street gangs rely heavily on forced youth recruitment. Gangs force children to carry out key tasks; they are seen as less likely to attract police attention and less likely to receive heavy penalties if caught smuggling drugs and weapons. Teenage girls are especially vulnerable to the sexual violence that gangs use to control their territory and signal status within the group. Families returning from the United States will be viewed as prime targets for gang extortion for dollars they might have saved.
All this could trigger more migration from El Salvador, when families fearing for their lives seek safety in the United States. The U.S. Border Patrol and immigration authorities have seen a marked increase in requests from Central American asylum-seekers in recent months, even though overall, the number of people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border has reached record lows not seen since the 1970s. This, in addition to El Salvador’s sluggish economy and its vulnerability to extreme climate events, could exacerbate migration.
Besides these ramifications for El Salvador, the termination of TPS for Salvadorans likely will cause a significant humanitarian and economic impact for cities such as Washington, D.C., Miami and Los Angeles. Those who decide to stay in the United States illegally will be vulnerable to exploitation by employers and landlords, as well as gangs who know these people will not approach police for fear of deportation. Additionally, the TPS decision will cause expensive logistical challenges: for example, should immigration authorities prioritize finding and deporting those who stay? Is hunting down Salvadoran single mothers really the best use of taxpayer money?
Given the long-term ramifications of this decision, the Trump administration ultimately is exacerbating problems it claims to be fixing. It will be up to Congress to take action to regularize the status of TPS recipients, an approach that will benefit U.S. interests and the economy, help El Salvador and Central America, and address a humanitarian problem.
Geoff Thale is program director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. Elyssa Pachico is the organization's assistant director for communications. Follow her on Twitter @Elyssa_Pachico.