The Trump administration said Monday it is ending special protections for Salvadoran immigrants, an action that could force nearly 200,000 to leave the U.S. by September 2019 or face deportation.
El Salvador is the fourth country whose citizens have lost Temporary Protected Status under President Donald Trump. They have by far been the largest beneficiaries of the program, which provides humanitarian relief for foreigners whose countries are hit with natural disasters or other strife.
Salvadorans will have until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the United States or, if eligible, file the necessary paperwork to remain in the U.S. legally, a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing the announcement. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced a Monday deadline whether to grant an extension.
Nielsen, who is tasked with making the decision, told The Associated Press last week that short-term extensions are not the answer.
"Getting them to a permanent solution is a much better plan than having them live six months, to 12 months to 18 months," she said in an interview, referring to the uncertainty of short-term extensions.
A decision to force the Salvadorans back to their native country would send shivers through parts of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, Houston and other metropolitan areas that are home to large numbers of Salvadorans, who have enjoyed special protection since earthquakes struck the Central American country in 2001. Many have established deep roots in the U.S., starting families and businesses over decades.
Furthermore, TPS does not provide beneficiaries with a path to lawful permanent residence or citizenship. However, a U.S. citizen can petition for a family member who is a TPS recipient to become a lawful permanent resident. According to the USCIS, a husband or wife can petition for their spouse, parents can petition for their children and children over the age of 21 may petition for parents or siblings. TPS recipients may also be eligible to apply for a Green Card as an immigrant worker sponsored by an employer or as a Special Immigrant, such as a member of a religious denomination coming to the U.S. to work for a nonprofit religious organization, among other paths.
Ending the protections would also represent a serious challenge for El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people whose economy depends on remittances from wage-earners in the U.S.
Over the last decade, growing numbers of Salvadorans - many coming as families or unaccompanied children - have entered the United States illegally through Mexico, fleeing violence and poverty.
In September 2016, the Obama administration extended protections for 18 months, saying El Salvador suffered lingering harm from the 2001 earthquakes that killed more than 1,000 people and would be unable to absorb such a large wave of people returning.
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Immigration advocates have argued that the conditions in El Salvador are still too violent and impoverished for those on temporary protected status to return.
A senior administration official said the Trump administration did not consider the gang-related violence in El Salvador when deciding to end the protected status, only that the country has recovered from the 2001 earthquakes.
Nielsen said Monday that damage inflicted by a 2001 earthquake in the Central American country didn't justify another temporary extension. She says that El Salvador has received significant international aid and that much of the country's infrastructure is rebuilt.
Homeland Security also said more than 39,000 Salvadorans have returned home from the U.S. in two years, demonstrating El Salvador's capacity to absorb people. It said the 18-month delay would give Congress time to develop a legislative change if it chooses, while also giving Salvadorans and their government time to prepare.
El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren spoke at length by phone with Nielsen Friday to renew his request to extend the status to allow more time for Congress to deliver a long-term fix for those covered to stay in the U.S.
The decision comes amid intensifying talks between the White House and Congress on an immigration package that may include protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who came to the country as children and were temporarily shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program. Trump said in September that he was ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals but gave Congress until March to act.
President Donald Trump is expected to host a bipartisan group of senators at the White House this week to try to hash out a deal.
The U.S. created Temporary Protected Status in 1990 to provide a haven from countries affected by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, war and other disasters. It currently shields nearly 320,000 people from 10 countries. There are nearly 440,000 beneficiaries from the 10 countries, including 263,000 from El Salvador — but many of those people have obtained legal status in other ways.
The benefit, which includes work authorization, can be renewed up to 18 months at a time by the Homeland Security secretary. Critics say it has proven anything but temporary — with many beneficiaries staying years after the initial justification applies.
In November, Nielsen's predecessor, acting Secretary Elaine Duke, ended protections for Haitians, requiring about 50,000 to leave or adjust their legal status by July 22, 2019, and for Nicaraguans, giving about 2,500 until Jan. 5, 2019. She delayed a decision affecting more than 50,000 Hondurans, forcing a decision on Nielsen.
Last year, the Trump administration extended status for South Sudan and ended it for Sudan. Other countries covered are Nepal, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.