The Trump administration is set to rule this week on whether hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran migrants can remain in the United States. The decision is part of President Donald Trump's lesser-known crack down on immigration, overshadowed by heated rhetoric over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and his proposed border wall. Activists warn that returning migrants in droves could have far-reaching economic and geopolitical consequences.
The Department of Homeland Security is set to rule any time before Monday on whether to extend Temporary Protected Status, a designation that keeps escapees from political and natural disaster in the country, for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many of whom arrived together with Hondurans in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1999. But with Trump's track record on immigration, community advocates aren't optimistic.
"There is really no good end in sight," says Salvador Sanabria, the director of El Rescate, a Los Angeles-based immigrant rights group advocating for Salvadorans and others facing hostile immigration policy. "Not at all after the decisions made by the administration regarding TPS for Haitians, Nicaraguans" and others, Sanabria adds.
Bipartisan members of Congress launched the TPS program in 1990. Before Trump took office, there were over 300,000 TPS recipients living in the U.S., from a total of 10 countries spanning the globe from Central America to Syria. But in September, the administration discontinued TPS designation for Sudanese, and then, in November, it discontinued TPS for Nicaraguans and Haitians.
The decision to discontinue TPS protections for Haitians—a community totaling 50,000 before Trump took office—sent droves of Haitian TPS-holders over the border into Canada, where Ottawa is struggling to cope with the influx, housing the the new refugees in makeshift dwellings while immigration authorities process them for resettlement. Tijuana and other Mexican cities bordering the U.S. have also been struggling to deal with a surge in the number of migrants freshly deported by the Trump administration.
A decision to remove TPS designation from Salvadoran recipients could have dire consequences at home and abroad. In a letter written to the Trump administration late last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied that TPS be extended for Salvadorans, as the removal of the residency status would separate families. Salvadoran TPS recipients have roughly 192,700 children born in the U.S., according to findings from the New York-based Center for Migration Studies think tank—those children would face uncertain futures if their parents were forced to return to El Salvador.
A decision to discontinue TPS designation for Salvadorans would hit economies, particularly in Central American community hubs like Southern California and the Washington, D.C., area, Sanabria says.
In Nevada, many Salvadoran TPS recipients work in the state's key tourism and other service industries, local media has reported. "If TPS were to expire, it would criminalize thousands of current legal workers in major cities and industries overnight," Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union, Nevada's largest immigrant organization, told Pacific Standard in an emailed statement. "We call on Republicans to renew TPS and not separate and destroy families who have deep roots in the United States."
Salvadoran TPS recipients contribute to the U.S. economy at every echelon of a host of sectors. "These people are entrepreneurs," Sanabria explains. Among the group's TPS recipients, thousands "own businesses, from landscaping to construction-related services, to cleaning companies, to restaurants, to small mom-and-pop shops and other kinds of service industry business. It will have an impact. But the largest impact will be to the Salvadoran economy and the families that depend on the remittance flow provided by the people."
El Salvador is heavily dependent on remittances from expatriates like the TPS beneficiaries whose status is in question. Worries abound that a sudden return of hundreds of thousands of jobless newcomers will add unprecedented stress to the nation's already faltering public infrastructure. San Salvador already faces crippling poverty; it remains unclear whether the new influx of displaced former U.S. residents would provoke unrest beyond El Salvador as migrants would likely pour into neighboring Mexico to find work.
Pacific Standard has, for the last six months, been tracking the Trump administration's crusade against TPS. Immigrant rights advocates explain that TPS recipients bear several similarities to former DACA recipients—both previously enjoyed temporary residency and work protections in the U.S., many have lived here for decades, and both groups have long called for more holistic immigration reform to offer them a pathway to permanent and legal citizenship. More recently, under Trump, both have seen their status removed. But the public's attention has focused more centrally on DACA, with news media and celebrities on Twitter rallying to that cause.
"DACA has been more in the news. Because of it's nature related to young people that came here, and it became a debated issue in the past presidential elections. The decision by the president once he took office to cancel it in an executive order put it to the front of the news and the debate, and still it is," Sanabria explains.
While attentions are turned toward DACA and Trump's other immigration controversies, the administration is slated to dispense with more decisions this year on the status of other TPS beneficiaries. In the past, administrations more concerned with cementing friendships in Central America and environs had more of an incentive to keep TPS designations. Not so for the Trump administration, Sanabria says.
"Honduran and Salvadoran troops fought with the international coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was the quid pro quo. That's no longer the issue for this administration," he says. "This administration wants to show not just tough speech but tough action by ending these programs benefiting hundreds of thousands of people with temporary relief and a work permit in the U.S."