Lives in Limbo: Temporary Protected Status to End for Many in the U.S.

Marissa Esthimer, MPP

Protestors at A Day Without Immigrants March & Rally, Feb. 16 2017. Photo by Lorie Shaull.

On Jan. 8, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it will end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nationals of El Salvador in September 2019. TPS is a form of humanitarian relief in which the executive branch grants work authorization and protection from deportation to foreign nationals in the U.S. who cannot safely return to their countries due to natural disaster, violent conflict, or another “extraordinary and temporary” event for a renewable period of 6 to 18 months. Roughly 263,000 Salvadorans now face uncertainty as they prepare to leave the U.S. before their protections expire.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that the disaster-related conditions that first prompted the TPS grant “no longer exist,” necessitating the termination. The decision comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s announcements ending TPS for nationals of Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, which affect about 65,000 people collectively. These major policy reversals run counter to previous Republican and Democratic administrations that had largely preserved TPS protections. The decisions carry significant implications for beneficiaries as well as their families, countries of origin, and communities within the U.S., where many have established deep ties.

Background on TPS

Congress established TPS in the Immigration Act of 1990. El Salvador was the first country to be granted TPS, as a means of protecting Salvadorans who had escaped the country’s civil war. This grant expired in 1992, though the Bush administration designated El Salvador anew in 2001 following a pair of earthquakes. Ten countries currently hold TPS and nationals of El Salvador are the largest group, accounting for about 60 percent of the roughly 437,000 beneficiaries, followed by Hondurans and Haitians. Only individuals in the U.S. at the time of designation are eligible for TPS, and must meet a number of other criteria to qualify, including having a relatively clean criminal record.

Because TPS is designed as a temporary relief program, recipients are treated differently from other groups of non-citizens in the U.S. Though they are authorized to work, TPS holders are not eligible for other forms of government assistance such as food stamps or Supplemental Security Income. TPS does not provide a direct pathway to a green card or citizenship, but some beneficiaries who entered on a visa may be eligible to adjust status through other channels, such as employer or family sponsorship.

While some TPS designations last just a few years before being terminated—including those for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic—others have been repeatedly extended for  over a decade, such as those for immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras following natural disasters. Critics of TPS allege it has effectively become a form of perpetually renewed protection for many groups rather than a targeted program for relief. Meanwhile, supporters argue that it realistically takes many years for countries to recover from TPS-triggering catastrophes.

Many TPS holders buy houses, start businesses, raise families, and integrate into local economies; notably, they participate in the labor force at higher rates than natives and other immigrants. According to estimates from the Center for Migration Studies, 51 percent of Salvadoran TPS recipients have lived in the U.S. for at least 20 years and 85 percent speak some English. In addition, these Salvadorans hold 45,000 mortgages and are responsible for 190,000 U.S.-citizen children. Their departure from the country would leave jobs unfilled, homes to become foreclosed upon, and children either separated from their parents or brought to an unfamiliar country.

Impacts of TPS on Origin Countries

In addition, the TPS terminations will cause headaches for countries of origin. In El Salvador, remittances from abroad, many sent by TPS holders to aid struggling relatives, account for roughly 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Mass migration back to El Salvador would cut off this vital inflow of cash, while reintegrating returnees would place further social and economic pressures on the troubled country. Relatively skilled returnees may also cause new waves of migration, as more people compete for a limited number of jobs.

However, Salvadorans who lose their TPS protections are not likely to go back. While the Trump administration argues that El Salvador has recovered from the earthquakes that led to its TPS designation, the country is still plagued by the gang violence that has made it the deadliest in the world. In September 2017, it experienced nearly 15 homicides per day.

In addition, the TPS decisions will likely only grow the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., as those who lose protection move into the shadows rather than return to situations of violence or poverty. Before terminating a TPS designation, the Trump administration would do well to carefully consider the impacts of TPS on U.S. communities and origin countries, as well as country conditions overall—beyond those created by the triggering event. Until officials can ensure that TPS holders will be safely returned to a country that is adequately prepared to receive them, the protections should be retained.

A Fading Path Forward

The Trump Administration’s TPS decisions have sparked new advocacy and momentum for a legislative solution to offer recipients a path to green cards or citizenship. Congress has 18 months to act before Salvadorans lose their protections, and lawmakers including Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) have introduced bills addressing the situation of TPS holders.

However, with several pressing immigration issues for Congress to tackle, it is unclear how successful efforts to extend protections for Salvadorans will ultimately be. In the meantime, Salvadorans and others will watch anxiously, as their future in the country many have called home for decades hangs in the balance.


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