In one of its most significant immigration decisions to date, the Trump administration said Monday it will terminate the provisional residency permits of about 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived in the country since at least 2001, leaving them to potentially face deportation.
The administration said it will give the Salvadorans until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the United States or find a way to obtain legal residency, according to a statement Monday from the Department of Homeland Security. The Salvadorans were granted what is known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, after earthquakes hit the country in 2001, and their permits have been renewed on an 18-month basis since then.
Monday’s announcement was consistent with the White House’s broader stated goal of reducing legal immigration to the United States and intensifying efforts to expel those who arrived illegally. But Homeland Security officials characterized the decision by Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in narrower legal terms: as a recognition that conditions in El Salvador had improved enough since the earthqaukes to make the TPS designation no longer warranted.
“Based on careful consideration of available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process, the Secretary determined that the original conditions caused by the 2001 earthquakes no longer exist,” Monday’s DHS statement read. “Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated.”
The DHS statement also noted that the U.S. government has deported more than 39,000 Salvadorans in the past two years, demonstrationing, it said, “that the temporary inability of El Salvador to adequately return their nationals after the earthquake has been addressed.”
DHS officials said 262,500 Salvadorans have been granted TPS permits, but recent estimates indicate the number of people who reside in the country with that status is closer to 200,000.
Immigrant advocates, Salvadoran government officials and many others had implored Nielsen to extend the TPS designation, citing the country’s horrific gang violence and the potentially destabilzing effect of so many people being sent home.
Others urged her to consider the apporoximately 190,000 U.S.-born children of Salvadoran TPS recipients. Their parents must now decide whether to break up their families, take the whole family back to El Salvador, or stay in the country and risk deportation.
Senior DHS officials told reporters Monday that the families would have to make that decision, and that the impact on American businesses, among other potential consquences of the TPS decision, were not part of Nielsen’s decision-making process. They said it is up to Congress to determine a remedy.
“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 DHS statement read. “The 18-month delayed termination will allow Congress time to craft a potential legislative solution.”
Trump administration officials have repeatedly said they viewed the TPS program as an example of American immigration policy gone awry, noting that when Congress created the designation in 1990, its purpose was to provide “temporary” protection from deportation following a natural disaster, armed conflict or other calamity.
In November, DHS ended TPS for 60,000 Haitians who arrived after a 2010 earthquake, and for 2,500 Nicaraguan migrants protected after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
A six-month extension was recently granted to 57,000 Hondurans, a decision made before Nielsen’s arrival by then-Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke. That move frustrated White House officials who wanted Duke to end the program.
Lawmakers from both parties who represent cities and states with large immigrant populations blasted Monday’s DHS decision, including Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who called it “a shameful and cynical move” whose purpose was to “score political points with the extreme right wing Republican base.”
Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said he urged the Trump administration to “reconsider” the TPS decision. “Since 2001, these people have established themselves in the United States, making countless contributions to our society and our local communities. It would be devastating to send them home after they have created a humble living for themselves and their families.”
There were new signs Monday that TPS could end up as a bargaining chip in a potential congressional immigration deal. A source familiar with the negotiations said Congress could step in to help the Salvadorans, Haitians and other groups whose temporary protected status is now set to expire in 2019.
Democrats and Republicans have been privately discussing the possibility of curbing the diversity visa lottery program — which grants about 55,000 green cards each year to immigrants from nations with low immigration rates to the United States — in exchange for extending TPS protections as part of the talks over the fate of younger immigrants known as “dreamers” who were brought to the country illegally as children.
President Trump has railed against the diversity program, saying that any deal to provide legal status to the dreamers must get rid of it.
“The fix has been in for these TPS decisions, regardless of the facts on the ground in these countries,” said Kevin Appleby of the New York-based Center for Migration Studies.
“The decision on El Salvador is particularly damaging,” he said. “It not only will uproot families and children who have lived here for years, it also will further destabilize an already violent country. It is incredibly short-sighted and undermines our interest in a stable Central America.”
DHS said in its announcement that it conducted extensive outreach to Salvadorans living in the United States, including “community forums on TPS, panel discussions with Salvadoran community organizers, stakeholder teleconferences, regular meetings with TPS beneficiaries, news releases to the Salvadoran community, meetings with Salvadoran government officials, meetings at local churches, and listening sessions.”
Secretary Nielsen met recently with the El Salvador’s foreign minister and U.S. ambassador, and spoke with President Sánchez Cerén, according to the announcement sent to lawmakers.
Jaime Contreras, vice president of Local 32BJ, the largest property service local in the Service Employees International Union, called Monday’s decision “shameful.” In the Washington area, he said, TPS recipients clean Ronald Reagan National Airport, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and “every major landmark you can think of.”
“They have families here. A lot of these people own homes,” said Contreras, whose union represents about 160,000 commercial office cleaners, security officers and others nationwide. “It’s time for Congress to do the right thing.”
Ed O’Keefe, David Nakamura and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.
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