A Central America that is peaceful and secure will be a benefit to the national security, as well as the economy, of the United States.
That’s a view expressed this past June by Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE when he declared at the Conference for Prosperity and Security in Central America, “A secure and prosperous Central America contributes to a safer, more prosperous United States and Western Hemisphere.”
So why are we taking actions that will undermine that goal?
With the Trump administration’s announcement that Temporary Protected Status (TPS) will be revoked for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, a total of more than 300,000 immigrants from Central America and Haiti who lost their TPS status will be forced to return to their home countries or face deportation. A decision on the fate of 57,000 Hondurans still hangs in the balance.
The decision to revoke TPS, which allowed migrants from designated countries affected by war or disaster to live and work in the United States, is an action that lacks compassion and foresight of its consequences.
In the first place, our hearts reel at how this policy action will affect families who have become our neighbors and valuable members of our communities. Stories abound of TPS beneficiaries who have opened businesses, or have entered helping professions such as teaching and health care. They feed us; they build our houses. They have raised their children, who in many cases are U.S. citizens. And in the case of those who came to the United States as children, they will be forced to leave a country they consider to be home to live in a place they do not know.
But this decision is also short-sighted in advancing U.S. national interests. The departure of these U.S. workers and small business owners from Central America and Haiti is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars in lost GDP over the next decade, ranging from $164 billion in one estimate, to $45 billion in another. In addition, the loss of these workers could result in a $6.9 billion reduction to Social Security and Medicare contributions over a decade.
In addition, this mass repatriation is expected to put an enormous strain on already stressed Central American and Haitian economies and could undermine security and stability, a driver of illegal migration into the United States.
Humanitarian organizations such as the one I lead know from experience that it can take years, if not decades, for countries to recover from the kinds of disasters and conflicts that precipitate the granting of TPS. Haiti, which still has not fully recovered from the 2010 earthquake, has had to grapple with a cholera epidemic and $2 billion in damage caused by 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.
A reduction in remittances from the United States will adversely affect local economies. According to a World Bank estimate, remittances from El Salvador (which total $4 billion), Honduras ($3.3 billion), and Haiti ($1.3 billion), made up more than 15 percent of their respective GDPs in 2015.
The nations of Central America are grappling with their own set of economic and social problems. The civil wars that gripped El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s have given way to criminal activity by gangs and criminal organizations that have forced many families to flee. This has been a key driver in migration to the United States.
Notably, these gangs were formed in this country by people who imported them to Central America when they were deported. Although gangs such as MS-13 continue to threaten some of our communities, ending TPS won’t really address this. Existing laws allow for these criminals to be arrested and deported.
Many humanitarian organizations, including mine, work with dozens of local non-governmental organizations on rural development to strengthen the economies of these Central American communities and build resilience and stability to counter gang recruitment and the flows of northward migration. This move makes our partners’ heroic efforts that much more difficult.
The United States already has made a substantial investment in the development of the Northern Triangle’s El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras through its support of the Alliance for Prosperity, a regional initiative that seeks to reduce violence and spur economic development.
Congress conditioned these monies on the three governments taking steps on migration, rule of law and transparency. The move to end TPS for these migrants will make it harder to achieve the goals of this effort.
It’s not too late to remedy this misguided policy. Congress can rectify this situation and define a process to provide legal status and a way forward for all those who have lost TPS. This would at least avoid the worst effects in the countries to which they would be returning. It’s a move that would be both compassionate and smart.
Daniel Speckhard, a former U.S. ambassador and senior official at NATO, is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, a global humanitarian and development nonprofit.