The Trump administration wants to talk gang violence, drug trafficking and stemming illegal migration from Central America at this week’s Conference on Prosperity and Security in Miami. But the presidents of Honduras and El Salvador have another pressing issue at the top of their agenda.
Both leaders of Central America’s Northern Triangle have taken to Twitter ahead of scheduled one-on-one talks with Vice President Mike Pence in Miami on Thursday to push for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for their nationals who have been allowed to live and work in the United States — sometimes for more than a decade — under the special humanitarian immigration status.
Their strong social media offensive contrasts with the actions of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who weighed in publicly on TPS only after pressure from U.S.-based activists, and 15 days before a May 23 decision by the Trump administration that could force the return of 58,706 Haitians as early as January.
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“They are engaging President Trump directly and their position is firm,” said a frustrated Marleine Bastien, who has asked for Moïse to meet with her and TPS families when he visits Miami this week for the Haitian American Business Summit. “I’ve received calls from a couple of journalists from Honduras wanting to know what the heck our president is doing. Unfortunately, we’re not so lucky.”
Haiti’s eventual request for an 18-month extension of TPS initially came from its Washington embassy, followed by another request by its foreign minister — after much pressure from activists and others — during a meeting with Kelly.
But Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and Salvador Sánchez of El Salvador have shown no reluctance to take on TPS.
“We are working and making our best efforts with United States officials to extend the TPS to Salvadorans,” Sánchez tweeted on Saturday about his nation’s 195,000 TPS recipients, whose designation comes up for renewal in March.
Two days earlier, Hernández was even more forceful in a series of tweets in which he said he plans to raise the issue with Pence, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
“Our compatriots with TPS have been integrated into the society of the USA,” Hernández tweeted in Spanish on Thursday. “They have created businesses, they pay taxes. After 18 years in the United States, compatriots with TPS have passed rigorous filters as legal immigrants...
“Soon I will speak with VP Pence, Secretaries Tillerson and Kelly to qualify Honduras for TPS. The Honduras-United States of America cooperation deserves special consideration,” he said in a final tweet.
There are currently about 57,000 Hondurans receiving the temporary immigration benefit, which was granted after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras and nearby Nicaragua in 1998. Under the immigration status, Hondurans and Nicaraguans, who were also granted TPS, have been allowed to live and work legally in the United States.
Last renewed in 2016 for 18 months, the designation for both Central American nations comes up for renewal in January. Sixty days prior, the Department of Homeland Security has to decide whether to extend or terminate the benefit.
John Creamer, deputy assistant secretary of state for Cuba, Mexico, Central America, said TPS is not on the conference agenda but he expects it to come up in bilateral talks with Pence, who will give the keynote speech on Thursday.
Pence is also scheduled to meet with Moïse. He’s not participating in the Central American conference but was invited by Kelly — during a recent visit to Haiti to discuss TPS — to stop by.
“Obviously, it’s important to countries in the Northern Triangle,” Creamer said. “But in terms of the countries in Central America at the moment, we have not made a decision yet on TPS....We have the process under way. Decisions will be made later this year.”
U.S. officials may also get a request for TPS designation from Morales of Guatemala. He has asked for TPS on behalf of undocumented Guatemalans living in the U.S. on several occasions. Guatemala is not among the 10 countries that currently have TPS.
Fearful that the Haiti decision could eventually mean the end of TPS for their nationals, Central American activists have joined forced with Bastien and other Haitian activists to solicit the support of Hernández, Morales and Sánchez to urge the administration to grant an 18-month extension.
James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary at DHS under President George W. Bush from 2003-2005, said Homeland Security is undoubtedly in a tight spot. Norton said he thinks there would be backlash if TPS ended as some in Congress would like, and it’s also impractical.
“Let's say they suspended TPS tomorrow,” said Norton, an adjunct professor who teaches homeland security courses at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Outside of a public relations-type campaign saying that TPS status is going to be eliminated, it's going to be very difficult for the government to essentially deport folks of any of the nationalities that may have their status rescinded.”
Of all the nations currently embroiled in the TPS debate, there is one, however, that may have some political leverage, Norton said: Honduras.
Under a 2005 agreement with the U.S. government, Honduras has a U.S. Customs office in its Caribbean port of Puerto Cortes where all U.S.-bound containers undergo massive screenings, a security precaution advantageous to the United States.
“As a card on the table, they could play that,” Norton said.