By Jan. 8, the Secretary of Homeland Security will announce whether Temporary Protected Status (TPS) will be extended for some 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived legally in the United States since wars, hurricanes and earthquakes resulted in their being granted relief from deportation. If not, they will face expulsion, and their 192,700 U.S. citizen children will be left in limbo.
Knowing that their children are likely to face either recruitment or victimization from gangs in El Salvador, TPS parents will be faced with the “Sophie’s choice” of endangering their children by taking them to El Salvador or splitting up their families and leaving them here with foster families. Parents desperate to reunite with their families can almost certainly be expected to start the perilous journey back to the United States as soon as they land.
President George W. Bush first granted TPS to Salvadorans in 2001, and they have lived here securely with extensions every 18 months. Unfortunately, now the Trump administration is threatening to end that status, arguing that “temporary” conditions have come to end. The Trump administration ignores entirely the other two words in TPS — “Protected” and “Status.”
Bush and then President Obama decided, accurately, that forcing the return of men and women and their U.S. born children, “would pose a serious threat to their personal safety.” Part of the reason that they needed to stay here under U.S. protection is that successive El Salvador governments were and are, as the law reads, “unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return” of its nationals.
Why would they be at risk? Because in El Salvador, violence is a constant reality. The homicide rate in the country was again among the highest in the world in 2016, and the rate for women was the highest in the hemisphere; kidnapping and extortion are equally widespread. Recently, homicides have been on the increase, averaging 14 per day. Returning to El Salvador means the TPS holders, and especially their children, will confront the waiting clutches of gangs. Gangs control countless neighborhoods and towns and prey on young girls and boys. Their power has prompted the leftist government of President Sánchez Cerén, counter-intuitively given his background, to deploy the military to bolster police capacity.
No stronger evidence of the El Salvador’s inability to handle the arrival of this massive number of returnees — 10 times the number deported in most recent years from the United States — is its Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez and business, and civil society leaders traveling to Washington repeatedly to ask the United States to extend TPS. The concerted push should not be surprising given the country’s economic malaise, with a growth rate under 2.4 percent, poverty higher than 40 percent and little investment. The end of remittances from the Salvadorans granted TPS, some $200 million each year, would constitute a further crippling blow to the country’s economy.
In legal terms, the only reason not to extend TPS is if doing so would endanger recipients and is “contrary to the national interest.” In fact, it is in our national interest. In June, the White House stated that, “A prosperous, secure and well-governed Central America advances [are] key to regional stability and to the security of the United States.” Returning Salvadorans under current conditions, in direct opposition to its government’s wishes, actually undermines the U.S. national interest.
The third word in TPS is “status,” and various elements of their status further argues that keeping them here is in the U.S. national interest.
First, they are U.S. taxpayers with a 95 percent labor force participation, half also pay for their own health insurance and they contribute to Social Security that, in many cases, they will never collect.
Second, they are law-abiding residents who report regularly to DHS, stating where they live and where they work.
Third, they are parents of 192,700 American citizens.
Fourth, many are homeowners, and 45000 of the households have mortgages that would be forfeited if they were forced by DHS to leave the country.
Finally, their remittances home total nearly as much as U.S. aid, greatly reducing the burden on our foreign assistance budget.
Those factors did not stop the Trump administration from failing to extend TPS for smaller numbers of Nicaraguans, Haitians and Hondurans in decisions last month. However, if Trump is serious about having compassion for those less fortunate, taking actions that reduce the numbers of illegal migrants and unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border, and confronting rather than providing recruits for the maras/gangs, he should recognize that “Protected” and “Status” are part of TPS and extend its benefits once more to 200,000 Salvadorans.
Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former director of the Peace Corps and head of USAID for Latin America. Aaron Schneider is associate professor of international studies at the University of Denver and director of its Center of Latin American Studies.